An Illustrated Guide to Semi-Humans, Shapechangers, and Anthropomorphisms

A few weeks ago, I went out to dinner with some classmates in Little Italy. Ten of us sat around one table, doing round-robin rotations with the basket of bread and gossiping about the few straight boys in our class. At one point, I was talking to Erin, sitting next to me, and the conversation turned to the mole people in the New York subway system. Across the table, another girl overheard snatches of our conversation and exclaimed: “Mole people?! Are you serious?!” (The interrobangs were obvious from her tone of voice.) “Like, as in, face of a mole, body of a… people?”

In the way of ten girls out to dinner, we all found this hilarious, and explained between giggles that mole people are fully human. But that night, after some random Googling, I discovered the terror of the bloodthirsty mole people rising from the depths of the earth. Thank god for campy black-and-white horror flicks. Mole people: face of a mole, body of a people. (Also the hands of a mole, from what I can see.)

Storywise, there’s a lot you can do with a monster that’s part human. We know more about what it’s like to be human than about what it’s like to be a mole.

So, the question becomes, if you plumb the depths of bad ’50s horror, plus myths, scifi, and Harry Potter, is it possible to find every conceivable variation of half-human creature? Let’s find out! I’m going to go through my slightly ridiculous compendium of known fictional creatures. Feel free to skim, and at the end, I challenge you to present me with your wildest idea for a never-before-seen creature.

Semi-Humans

In theory, there are a few different ways you can get a part-human being. The most obvious… well, it sort of doesn’t bear thinking about in a non-fantasy world. Half-human hybrids made the old-fashioned way tend to be discriminated against, with interspecies marriage among intelligent beings seen as comparable to interracial marriage in our own world. Witness:

         Hagrid the half-giant                Spock the half-Vulcan                Hellboy the half-demon

http://www.blastr.com/sites/blastr/files/images/hagrid-harry-potter-and-the-deathly-hallows-part-2.jpg                   

Giants, Vulcans, and demons each have their own culture and norms, and there’s a “child of both worlds” element that means that hybrids don’t quite fit in anywhere. It’s very sad.

Then we have entire species that are half-human, half-something else. It’s not a natural genetic blending, it’s a strict cutoff. The species has its own name and culture, usually based in mythology. Witness:

Mermaid (top half human, bottom half fish)

Centaur (top half human, bottom half horse)

Satyr (top half human, bottom half goat, plus horns and a beard)

Angel (body of a human, wings of a bird)

Fury (body of a human, wings of a bird, personality of a woman scorned)

Sphinx (head of a human, body of a lion, wings of an eagle)

Again, these can be very fun to appropriate for stories, because Narnia centaurs are different from Harry Potter centaurs are different from Percy Jackson centaurs, depending on how horsey you want to make them.

Then we’ve got human-but-not or human-plus (or occasionally human-minus). Giants are human-plus. They’re just like humans, plus they’re gigantic. The same arguably applies to most superheroes. The same with cyborgs. I’m going to skip the pictures because this section is getting long—let’s move on to:

Shapechangers

Okay, so vampires. This is a vampire.

These are also vampires.

Can we come up with a standard definition for what a vampire is? Is it a human that can turn into a bat? Half human, half demon? Human-plus with fangs and super strength? Human-minus with no soul?

There’s really no good framework for vampires. They’re part human, sure, but no one can agree what the other part is. And yet, they’re MASSIVELY popular in fiction, because again, every author has his or her own take on the myth.

Let’s look at more obvious shapechangers, most of which come with prepackaged stories. We have:

Werewolf (Human that turns into a wolf)

There’s a narrative arc here. Bob starts out as a normal person until he’s bitten by a werewolf. Next full moon, bam, he blacks out and wakes up in his neighbor’s henhouse surrounded by dismembered chickens. He struggles to control himself, to come to terms with his new identity. It’s a good story, a very human story, but if you’re going to write a new werewolf story then you have to take that basic framework and twist it 90 degrees, make it new again.

Selkie (woman that turns into a seal/seal that turns into a woman)

If you’re Irish, you know the selkie story already. If not, go watch The Secret of Roan Inish right now. There’s a lot to be said about selkies and feminism, and it’s a less-known mythology in the U.S. I anticipate that selkie stories will be the next big thing.

Zombie (human that turns into an icky dead thing and generally doesn’t turn back)

or

Yeah, Warm Bodies is a pretty good example of how to take the traditional story of a shapeshifter and make it new. The reason that movie works is because we all know the zombie apocalypse narrative so well.

Keep in mind, the “shapeshifter” category also includes humans who can turn into whatever they want, like:

                                Animagi                                         Animorphs                                Wildmages

   

So far, so obvious, right? Now comes the broadest category of all:

Anthropomorphisms

Pretty much every third children’s book features some sort of anthropomorphism. If you have a half-human half-bear, you have to decide physically which bits are which, how much this human-bear thing has been influenced by each culture,  how it came to exist in the first place, etc. But if you have a (random, unexplained, alternate-universe) talking bear, you can make it as human as you want. It can stand on two legs, wear clothes, pay taxes, watch TV, use opposable thumbs, and be essentially human in every way that matters—but it’s still a bear, and therefore novel and exciting.

Anthropomorphisms are not just for kids, though. Doctor Who loves anthropomorphic aliens, because the writers can claim that these creatures evolved from primitive Earth species. Science! (Also it means they can use people in costumes instead of full-on CGI)

            Catkind                         Tree of Cheem         Silurian (lizard)         Judoon (rhino)

 

               Tritovore (fly)                              Saturnine (fish)               Racnoss (spider)

   

So here’s the fun part. Since there are so many categories and subcategories and mythologies attached to humanishness, I decided to type in my craziest thoughts for hybrids and try to stump Google image search. In the name of literary investigation, of course. To see if there are any truly original ideas left to play with. Behold:

     Rock person             Frog person           Moose person     Lobster person  Rabbit person

              

       Rat person            Mushroom person    Turtle person       Doll person     Sheep person

                

Bee person    Pineapple person    Cheese person       Dandelion person    Chocolate person

               

    Cloud person                Pterodactyl person            Rooster person            Meerkat person

           

The Internet is a wide and wonderful place. However. I did manage to stump Google six times. Not pictured:

  • Protozoan
  • Cockroach
  • Lemur
  • Wooly mammoth
  • Emu
  • Platypus

Therefore, I present you with an opportunity. Comment on this entry. Seriously, please, comment. Give me three things:

  1. A creature with which to morph a human (pictured or not pictured)
  2. Whether you would like this to be a semi-human, a shapechanger, or an anthropomorphism (anthropomorphisms will wear clothes, walk on two legs, and talk.)
  3. Your creature’s name. You can also give any special instructions, if you want to get creative.

I will take my favorite suggestion and write you a story about that creature’s adventures. This story will appear on my blog in one week’s time. If I’m feeling inspired, I’ll even draw/Photoshop a picture for you. Together, let’s contribute something new to the annals of the Internet.

Sense Magazine

As you may have noticed (or not, considering that I currently have about three readers), I haven’t posted in a while. I haven’t been idle during that time. I present to you: Sense Magazine!

The problem with the real world is that it doesn’t come with an instruction manual. You graduate from college with an understanding of how to identify the three main themes in Hemingway’s work, and how to self-medicate with caffeine to stay awake for 36 hours straight when necessary, but no idea how to pay taxes. At best, maybe you take a personal finance class. The expectation is that you’ll go to your parents for help, when the reality is that the average 20-something would rather gnaw off her own arm than admit to non-independence from her parents.

So, my group’s final project for my publishing program was a magazine that young professionals can use to answer those burning questions about business and finance. And since this project is now over and this magazine will never see the light of day, I thought I’d share with you three lovely readers something I wrote for this imaginary magazine’s imaginary “Common Sense” blog. Please ignore the glaringly obvious typo. I take no responsibility for that typo; blame the art director who laid out the page. (She’s my suitemate, and she mostly did a fantastic job, so I’m allowed to tease her a little.)Image

THE CONVERSATION

Mr. X: Hi, are you the one I’m meeting?

You: Yes. Are you Mr. X?

Mr X: That’s me. Nice to meet you. You shake hands. You make an effort to match the exact amount of force in his handshake. Shall we get a table? You do.

You: So, Mr. X, I really appreciate you taking the time to meet me like this. I know you must be busy.

Mr. X: Well, yes. I have a job. But I know that networking lunches are part of business, and I have been on hundreds of these, so I’m completely relaxed and charming. Why don’t you tell me about yourself?

You: I am now reciting the elevator speech that I practiced at least ten times in the mirror last night. In theory, it tells you everything you need to know about me in thirty seconds. I really hope I’m not talking too fast. So, how did you get your start at Company Y?

Mr. X: Let me tell you a long story. A lot of it comes down to luck, and the fact that I was born in a different generation. My exact career trajectory isn’t really relevant to you, and you’re doing your best to nod and look engaged in what I’m saying, but you’re actually trying to figure out the most casual way to bring up possible job openings at Company Y.

The waitress comes. You haven’t looked at the menu. Mr. X orders first, a BLT, and you order a BLT with no mayo, hoping that it’s not too obvious that you’re just copying his order.

You: So, what advice would you give to somebody my age trying to get started in the industry?

Mr. X: That’s a good question. I don’t necessarily have any magic solutions to help you find a job, but I am willing to think about it and help you out any way I can. I wouldn’t have agreed to meet with you otherwise. Tell me more about your interests.

You: Okay. I’m on firmer ground here. It’s easier to talk about my semester abroad in Belize than it was to rattle off my resume. This is starting to feel almost like a normal conversation.

Lunch continues, Mr. X gives you three names of people in your field to ask about jobs, and everyone lives happily ever after.

 THE MORAL OF THE STORY

There is no one right way to handle a networking lunch. It’s like a first date—you will be nervous, you will feel stupid and uncomfortable and three steps behind the conversation. The sooner you can get past that, see your contact as a human being, and relax a little, the smoother it will go.

Have a story about your first (or fortieth) lunch, coffee, or drinks meeting? Share it in the comments below!

What I’ve been reading: Ice, by Sarah Beth Durst

“Once upon a time, the North Wind said to the Polar Bear King, ‘Steal me a daughter, and when she grows, she will be your bride.’”

Fairy tales are hot right now. We’ve got TV shows like Grimm and Once Upon a Time, movies like Red Riding Hood and Snow White and the Huntsmen, books like Cinder and Throne of Glass. The trend is clear: take this set of about ten sappy kids’ stories that everyone knows, and make them dark, make them edgy, make them modern.

There are a couple of problems with this mindset: first, no one who has read the original Grimm fairy tales can argue that they’re sappy. Simplistic, maybe. Archaic, definitely. But the original Little Red Riding Hood doesn’t have a convenient woodsman who comes along and chops open the wolf to rescue Little Red from his belly (which, by the way, is still pretty awful). The wolf eats her. And she dies. The end.

Second, there are a lot more fairy tales out there in the world than anyone bothers to consider. If you’re bored with the endless progression of Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, maybe flip through the other 600 pages of your copy of Grimm’s fairy tales. Or better yet, look beyond the German to other anthologies.

East of the Sun and West of the Moon is a Norwegian folk tale, sort of forgettable on first read. Basically, a bear shows up at a poor man’s house and demands to marry his daughter. The daughter agrees, and it turns out that the bear turns into a man at night when he’s sleeping next to her. The girl gets bored and lonely, wandering around a castle by herself all day and sleeping next to a stranger all night, so she lights a candle one night to see the bear/man’s face. Surprise! He’s a gorgeous prince, but she wasn’t supposed to look, so now he has to go beyond the ends of the earth and marry the troll princess instead. Here’s what makes this particular fairy tale cool: for once, it’s the princess who has to go and rescue the prince from his ivory tower. She’s clever, she’s persistent, and she fights her way to a happily ever after.

(Incidentally, the story that first introduced me to this fairy tale was KnifeEdge’s beautiful Buffy the Vampire Slayer epic-length fanfiction. If you like Buffy at all, you owe it to yourself to spend the next week curled up reading this story.)

So, with feminism on the rise and authors on the hunt for underused fairy tales, it was probably only a matter of time before someone wrote a modernization of East of the Sun and West of the Moon. Ice, by Sarah Beth Durst, is a really solid attempt.

Ice places its heroine, Cassie, as a child of polar bear researchers in Alaska. She’s grown up thinking the fairy tale of her mother being stolen away by the North Wind is just that—a fairy tale. Her mother is dead, surely. Then, with very little warning, she turns eighteen, meets the polar bear king (a talking bear!), and agrees to marry him in exchange for her mother’s rescue from the land of the trolls. The mom’s pretty much a MacGuffin here—Cassie’s never met the woman, she doesn’t meet her for very long even after the rescue, and she saves her only out of a sense that it’s the right thing to do. But by golly, it does get the plot rolling.

Generally, “fast-paced” is a compliment for books, especially young adult books, but I think Durst rushes us through the initial character and relationship development just a little too quickly. In particular, with any book that centers around a romance, you need to capture that whole messy process of falling in love. It’s tricky. Love happens slowly, and if there’s other plot to be gotten through, a lot of authors try to fudge it with “weeks passed, they realized they had a lot in common, and then one day they kissed.” Durst does a little better, because I do buy into a very charming friendship and alliance between Cassie and Bear, but the shift from “I’m only marrying you to save my mother’s life, and I plan to divorce you as soon as possible” to “I’m so in love with you that I’m willing to abandon my family forever” happens in just a few pages.

Here’s what I do like: once Cassie decides that she wants to spend her life with Bear, she immediately starts making plans for how to build a future for herself. She’s not going to sit around ice skating through his palace while he goes off and does meaningful bear king things; she’s going to continue her research and combine it with what she now knows of magic to improve quality life for all the baby polar bears. And another point in her favor? When Bear turns into a human and randomly crawls into her bed that first night, she threatens him with an ax. The promise in the original fairy tale of a badass feminist heroine is really borne out in Cassie’s character.

Simplistic though it might be, East of the Moon and West of the Sun has the intuitive appeal that all good fairy tales have at their heart, the appeal that drives authors to tell and retell the same stories century after century. The characters get to benefit from magic, but magic has rules. In this particular story, it comes in two phases. At first, the girl, Cassie, is blindly (heh) trusting. She takes the magic at face value, and it works. If she could have just kept on like that, she could have had her happily ever after much easier.

That’s not how human beings work, though. We question. We pull things apart to see how they work, and sometimes, things get broken in the process. So the universe says: “Okay. You want everything to go back to the way it was? Fine, but this time you’re going to have to work for it.” And because Cassie is good and brave and willing to put in the effort, she gets her happy ending, and this time it’s sweeter because she’s earned it. That’s the dream.

Ice

Branding the universe

After a week of intensive seminars on the subject, I feel qualified to state: branding is important.

The next few paragraphs involve me talking about businessy things. Feel free to skip ahead to the part about naked girls smoking weed, if that’s more your thing.

By all rights, “branding” ought to be one of those jargon words that’s been overused to the point of losing all its original meaning and become a secret code phrase for “I am a serious, businesslike person using serious, businesslike words.” You know, like “incentivize” or “impactful” or “matrices.” Try it sometime. Walk into a conference room in any workplace in America and say, “I’d like to incentivize customer engagement by utilizing impactful service matrices.” Everyone will smile at you and nod as if you are wise.

As it turns out, though, “branding” has stubbornly clung to its original meaning. Any genre of business—magazine publishing, in this case—needs to focus on not just a specific subject matter, but also a specific attitude toward that subject matter. It’s the difference between Every Day With Rachael Ray and Martha Stewart Living: they’re both food and lifestyle magazines, they’re both backed by celebrities, but Rachael Ray’s brand is more fun and relaxed, while Martha Stewart’s is more classy and upscale.

The problem is, there are only so many attitudes one can take toward any given subject matter. This is the whole reason why hipsters came to exist. Suppose that I discover I enjoy Sufjan Stevens (This was the first musical artist who came to mind, fyi. I haven’t listened to Sufjan Stevens since high school, so he may in fact be so far past relevance that music lovers will instantly shun me.) I start establishing my personal brand as a person who enjoys Sufjan Stevens. I talk about the subtle tonal influences and lyrical brilliance (the music world’s version of incentivizing impactful matrices).

At this point, there are two options. Possibly, I am flat-out wrong. Sufjan Stevens has no subtle tonal influences or lyrical brilliance. The world will ignore my deluded rantings until I fade into sulky silence. Or, possibly, I have recognized something valid, and by talking about it, I alert people to the wonder that is Sufjan Stevens. All my friends start to identify as “people who enjoy Sufjan Stevens,” until one day, it’s no longer my unique brand. Sufjan Stevens fans are not distinct from one another. I have no choice but to mutter “yeah, well, I liked him before he was cool,” at which point people will throw things at me for sounding like a hipster.

We all sort of assume there’s some value in being the first to have an idea, and maybe there is, for about ten minutes. After that, it’s all about humanity as a whole trudging forward to encompass more thought-space.

At the same time, though: it’s important to stake out a brand, a space that you occupy on the continuum of humanity. Maybe no single thought you have is unique, but the collection of all those thoughts, opinions, likes, dislikes, that’s what makes you an individual, and that’s what you present as a brand to the outside world.

In the business world, this is important because it affects which people (if any) want to spend money on you. In personal terms, it’s important because it affects which people (if any) think that you are a worthwhile human being and want to spend time with you. I think about this a lot every time I change locations in the world. Here I am in New York—I don’t know anyone, no one knows me, and I can start fresh, emphasizing completely new elements of my personality to create a new brand.

Welcome, readers who skipped the majority of the business stuff. Goodbye, readers who are scandalized by the idea of naked girls smoking weed. Feel free to stop reading here.

This weekend, I got around to decorating the wall of my dorm room. As any college student will tell you, this is Serious Business. The walls of your dorm room are a visual reflection of your soul—or more accurately, your brand. Unfortunately, I’m only going to be living here six weeks, and I’m on a pretty tight budget, so I didn’t want to spend money on posters. The solution: grab free posters from the book expo where I volunteered, and fill in with pictures cut out of a free art catalog. Here is the result.

Image

I’m not actually sure how much this wall reflects my distinct personhood. Mostly, it seems to say “I like books, movies, and dogs wearing suits.” This is true of most of the world’s population.

Even working within the constraints of the catalog I chose, though, I could have created a much edgier wall. One of the pictures was this little NSFW gem, from an entire book entitled “Naked Girls Smoking Weed.”

The thing is, it’s not an unattractive picture. The subject matter grabs attention, and the photographer did a good job with visual composition. But it couldn’t appear on a wall side-by-side with a flower and Anne of Green Gables. If I were to put this picture on my wall, I would have to radically shift my personal brand.

I imagine the girl who would have this picture on her wall. Her name is Cassandra or Gwen. She majored in women’s studies in college, and when she graduated she shaved her hair within an inch of her scalp. She talks a lot about the empowerment of the female form. She listens to punk rock. She doesn’t smoke, but she’s taken part in at least one rally to legalize marijuana. The picture hangs over her kitchen sink next to one of a nuclear bomb going off and one of a clown with all the makeup melting off his face in the rain; every night when her apartment fills up with artfully dishevelled comrades, they appreciate her style.

That’s a personal brand, built on a lifetime of choices. I do not aspire to be a Cassandra or a Gwen. On the other hand: I am large, I contain multitudes. The problem with trying to present a coherent image to the world is that you lose little pieces from those multitudes that don’t fit the big picture.

Should I end this post by referencing a MacGuffin? That is the one common thread in this blog so far, after all. This blog isn’t branded so much as it is a random outpouring of some of my multitudes. Therefore, to maintain some semblance of connectedness: identity, brand, image, whatever you want to call it, we try to make it into a Thing to chase, the ultimate MacGuffin. It’s a very Wizard of Oz moment, then when you realize that it’s been inside you all along.

What I’ve been writing: Devil

I’m tired, and I don’t feel like writing anything new, so have a teaser chapter from the novel I’ve been working on. Keep in mind, this is a draft, but it’s still my original work, and it belongs to me. Don’t steal it.

Devil

Chapter 1

My story started the day Mark put a bullet in his brain.

Or at least, that’s where I usually start telling the story. Devils get bored easily. It’s an occupational hazard. If there’s no violence in the first three seconds, they’ll stop listening.

Really, it started before that. It started with love. Which is stupid and cliché, I know, but sue me. Everybody up there is looking for love or sex or money or power or all of the above, and for me it was love.

I was working as a dancer when I met him. Not the kind of dancer that’s really a stripper, but not far off either. I worked at this nightclub downtown called Pulse, where they paid me to look sexy on the dance floor and grind up on guys all night. Mark was one of them.

He was there a lot, always alone, never hitting on anyone. He and I, we got a sort of rhythm going. He’d come in around eleven, when there was starting to be a decent crowd but they mostly weren’t drunk enough to dance. That was my busiest time.

I could move my hips in time to the music without any conscious thought, but there was more to it than that. I would scope out a table of guys with expensive watches nursing mostly-empty drinks, and I would dance. I’d really let loose, dance like no one was watching except I knew they were. I could always feel them watching me, right up to the minute that I felt hands resting on my hips. I’d never turn around, just press backwards and let the beat flood through us both, passing back and forth through every thrust and shimmy. It didn’t matter who the guy was, it never did; all that mattered was that I’d pulled him into the thrall of that beat.

Mark stayed out of the way during that part.

It was afterwards that things got interesting, when I’d enticed enough people onto the floor that they didn’t really need me anymore. Then he would come up behind me with a drink, a dirty martini, which he somehow figured out that I love. There wasn’t much of anywhere quiet enough to have a real conversation, but while I was drinking my drink we would shout back and forth at one another. Random things. One night he wanted to know my favorite color (Red. His was mauve. I teased him for liking an old lady color.) Another night he asked if I ever forgot to eat (Never. It didn’t matter what I was doing, when lunchtime came around I ate lunch. He sometimes lived on one meal a day.)

After a few months of that, he asked me out, and of course I said yes, because God, the guy moved slow. Our first date, he took me to a little café and I just kept staring at him, couldn’t get over the novelty of seeing him someplace well-lit and quiet. He had these wispy little blond ringlets that framed his face, completely invisible in the club but under cheery café lighting they were the most adorable fucking thing I’d ever seen. He pulled at me in a way I wasn’t used to.

“Are you happy?” he asked me, halfway through the tiramisu.

“Now, or in general?”

“Both, I suppose.”

I thought about it. Thought about the rush of pounding rhythm and shared body heat every night at the club. Thought about tiramisu melting into sweetness on my tongue. Thought about Mark’s ringlets and the way they made me want to bury my face in the side of his head. Balanced that out against the crap I worried about all the time – making something real out of my life and making my mother proud and making sure nobody called me a slut. “Yeah,” I said to him, and my voice came out surprised. “Yeah, I think I’m really happy. Are you?”

He smiled, making little lines around the corners of his mouth. Then he pulled me toward him and we kissed, and I could touch those little lines with the end of my tongue. It only lasted a moment, since there was a table between us, the angles were all wrong, and anyway, we were in public. “You delight me,” he whispered into the air between us.

So of course we hit it off, started seeing each other a lot when he had time, started living together. He had this super stressful job in an office where he put on a tie and banged on a keyboard for sixty hours a week, and at the end of it all he still usually made it out to Pulse to dance with me. I wonder sometimes if it was my fault. If it hurt him to see his girlfriend pressed up against other guys.

That’s bullshit, though. His problem was not me. His problem was sixty hours a week, and no career advancement prospects, and no family or friends or sleep to speak of. He had work. And he had me.

I thought we were both happy, is the thing. I thought we’d made our own little brand of happy together, with me delighting him and him delighting me. I could have breakfast with Mark, go back to bed and sleep till noon, text him for a while on his lunch break, wander around the city, have a bubble bath, put on sexy clothes, go to work, come home sweaty and tired and half-deaf with the beat still pounding through me, and let Mark screw me into unconsciousness. That was the dream. If sometimes Mark went quiet and broody staring off into space, well, I could kiss him and he’d kiss me back and everything was fine.

Then I came home to find him bleeding.

When I think about being alive, that’s the night I think about. It was my day off – a Tuesday, no one goes clubbing on Tuesdays. I’d gone to get my hair done and grabbed dinner with a couple of girlfriends. I got back around ten, and I wasn’t sure if Mark would be home yet because his hours were like that. I figured if not, he’d probably be back before I went to bed, and I could show off my new haircut. It was an angled cut from my chin down to my shoulders, and it made for really nice hair flipping.

That was what I was thinking about when I opened the door. The lights were on, which made me smile, because if he was home before ten on a weeknight that meant his meeting probably went well and he’d be in a good mood. Life was better when Mark was in a good mood. Lighter. I could spend a really long time just watching him smile.

I think I probably called out his name and he didn’t answer. I dumped my purse on the table and went into the bedroom looking for him.

He was on the bedroom floor. Bleeding all over the laminate. His head was a mess, and the gun was cradled against his chest like something important.

It’s funny, thinking about it now. I know it hurt. I know I howled with the pain of it, sank to my knees next to him and got blood smears all over my hands and thought my chest was going to turn inside out. I know that, but it’s like trying to remember what it was like to look at a book before I knew how to read. Trying to remember watching The Sixth Sense and not knowing the twist ending. The memories don’t play right inside my head anymore, because I can’t feel what it felt like to hurt.

At some point, when I was still kneeling there staring at him, with the thought nagging at my brain that I should maybe do something, look for a note or call the police or mop up the blood or something useful, there was a knock at the door.

Not someone buzzing to be let into the building, mind you, although even that would have been weird on a random Tuesday night. No, someone knocked on the actual door to our apartment. My apartment. Mark’s ex-apartment. Three short, polite raps of the knuckles.

I didn’t get up, because I wasn’t sure I was ever going to be able to get up again, so he knocked again, and when I still didn’t answer, he came in. (Never mind that I’d locked the door when I got home, same as always.)

He came straight into the bedroom. Any half-formed thoughts I’d had about home invaders, when I’d heard the door clicking open, were dispelled when I got a good look at this guy. He wore a neatly tailored suit, not ostentatious, but neat. He had dark hair combed back from his face and manicured fingernails and shiny shoes.

There was a blunted sense of recognition that went through me. My devil. I’d never seen him before, I knew I’d never seen him before, but it still felt like he belonged there in that moment.

He looked down at the-thing-that-used-to-be-Mark, with me hunched over it protectively, and clucked his tongue. That’s it, just clucked his tongue like you might do if you saw someone go to throw out a candy wrapper and miss the trash can. “Well,” he said, “this is a bit of a mess.”

I looked up at him with dull eyes. “Who are you?”

“You poor thing. You thought he was happy, didn’t you? You thought he was going to propose.”

I had thought a proposal might be happening sometime soon. It had seemed like the logical next step after moving in together, and I could picture it, a life with him, maybe some kids a few years down the road. I hadn’t mentioned it to anyone yet, least of all Mark. Didn’t want to be the pushy girlfriend. “Not anymore,” I said.

“Why not?” he asked, all polite interest.

And then I was standing, hurling myself at the well-dressed stranger who had invaded the worst moment of my life. I started pummeling his chest with my fists, screaming things like “he’s dead, who the fuck are you, he’s dead he’s dead he’s dead,” mostly just screaming, until I was sobbing against his neck.

My bloody hands didn’t stain his suit. The neighbors didn’t call to complain about the noise. Consequences had just taken a holiday for the night.

When I’d calmed down a little, my devil patted me gently on the back. “Feeling better?”

“Who are you?” I asked again, asked his Adam’s apple because that was all I could see from my current position.

“I have an offer for you,” he said, not really answering my question. “From the boys downstairs.”

I bypassed the ten million other questions I probably should have asked, and went with, “What kind of offer?”

“What would you give to have your boyfriend back?”

“Anything.” It came out as a long exhale, and I didn’t think about it, just saw Mark’s blood imprinted on the insides of my eyelids.

“Well then, that makes things simple.” He walked over to the body, crouched down, and waved a hand lazily over Mark’s head. The next second, the floor and Mark’s skin and Mark’s clothes were all spotless. The bullet clattered harmlessly away, and Mark’s chest was rising and falling as he breathed. Sleeping. Just sleeping.

I made a small noise deep in my throat, and reached out to touch him.

My devil batted my hand away. “Not quite that simple. You said you’d give anything.” He pulled a sheaf of papers out of the briefcase I hadn’t noticed he was holding. “I need written documentation of that.”

I laid it all out on the bedside table to skim. It was written in pretty impressive legal mumbo-jumbo, but I got the gist of it. “You want my soul.”

“Yes.”

“You want my soul? You’re… what? The devil? Is this for real?” My eyes darted back to Mark, asleep on the floor, and I told myself that maybe this was all a bizarre dream.

“I’m a devil, yes, and this is very real. I’ve given you something, and now I’m asking for something in return. You did say anything.”

It’s one thing to say anything when there’s blood on the floor and you wish it were yours. When nothing seems important anyway. It’s another thing to stand there and sign away your soul, even if you’re not really sure what a soul is.

Probably my devil could sense my hesitation, because he pulled the oldest trick in the book. “Then again, if you’d prefer not to…” he waved his hand again and it all came back. The blood, the bullet, the not-breathing. “It’s your decision. I’ll just be going.”

“Wait.”

Just like that. He had me.

 

When I’m talking to some politely curious devil over coffee in the breakroom, that’s usually where I stop the story. Once the soul is turned over, the rest is just details. There is one question they always ask, though. Was it worth it?

It’s a dumb question, because who the fuck knows? Who knows what my life would have been like if I’d woken up the next morning with a soul and a dead boyfriend? I’ll tell you one thing, though. Selling your soul for love, you have to be either selfless or shit-stupid. And here’s why.

Waking up the morning after was the same as every other morning in that apartment. The alarm went off, blasting power chords from the local pop station. Mark groaned and reached over me to smack at the snooze button without ever opening his eyes, and I turned on my side to look at him for a few minutes and get myself psyched up for the day. Once I’m awake, I’m awake.

The sun was spilling in through the gaps in our cheap blinds, leaving thin lines of light across Mark’s face. His forehead was smoothed out in sleep, and his cheek was puddled against dark blue sheets. His ringlets were smooshed too, on the right side, but on the left side they were tumbling down almost into his eye.

This was what I did every morning. I lay there and made a catalogue of Mark’s face, until the alarm clock went off for the third time and he made a sleepy noise, heaved himself out of bed, and pressed a closed-mouth morning-breath kiss against the corner of my lips before stumbling off to shower. Some mornings I’d join him, or some mornings I’d make us pancakes and feel like Donna Reed. But always, first, I took my few minutes to just look at him. I wouldn’t say it was my favorite part of the day, but it was definitely important, something I missed when he was out of town or crashing at the office. It made me feel that pull right around the bottom of my ribcage, the one that meant I was in love with Mark.

I didn’t feel that, the morning after. I took those few minutes, and I noticed everything about him, but I might as well have been looking at the wallpaper for all the feeling it inspired.

I was hovering over him when the alarm went off the second time, my elbows propped on either side of his chest. He startled a little when he opened his eyes. “Hey, sweetie,” he murmured.

“Hey.” I looked into his eyes. They were greyish-blue, and they usually reminded me of the ocean on a foggy day in October when you have to squint to make out the line between sky and water. Usually I wanted to stare and stare and lose myself in that horizon line.

“Kinda creepy there, sweetie. Something wrong?” I shook my head, kept staring, waited for some sort of delayed emotion to kick in. He laughed. “Okay. I guess there are worse ways to wake up.” His voice got a little softer. “I had the craziest dream.”

That was clearly my cue to ask about the dream, but instead I leaned down and kissed him, buried my tongue in his mouth, tasted stale spit and felt the warmth of his soft palate. He was just starting to kiss back when I pulled away.

“Definitely worse ways to wake up,” he said, and craned his neck up for another kiss. I pulled away some more. “Right. Okay. I’m going to grab a shower.” He nudged me out of the way and sat up. “Love you.”

“Love you too,” I parroted back easily, automatically.

I didn’t.

We didn’t break up that day, or the day after. It took him a long time to figure it out, because I still kissed him. We still screwed, we still ate and talked and showered together, and I still said the words. I remember in physics class in high school, my teacher tried to explain that if you set an object in motion on a perfectly smooth surface, no friction at all, it will just keep going and going and going. That was me. I was an object in motion, and I didn’t have any reason to stop.

I told Mark to see a shrink. He went on anti-depressants and got better. Sometime after that, we broke up. Sometime after that, I discovered coke. Coke made everything sharper, made my heart beat fast and my fingers feel tingly.

Sometime after that, I died.

 

What I’ve been reading: Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

For my first real post, I present to you: a book review!

Actually, not a review so much as me rambling about a book I read fairly recently, the tropes, the social implications, all that jazz. I’ll try to do this once a week, or until you beg me to stop. This week’s offering is called Ready Player One.

This was one of the myriad audiobooks that I blew through in my two months of mindless desk job. The audiobook is narrated by Wil Wheaton, which is singularly appropriate since Wil Wheaton is king of the nerds. There’s been a surge in nerd culture lately. People watch Big Bang Theory, buy t-shirts from thinkgeek, attend Comic Con and ACen, play D&D, all without shame. Or maybe that’s just my friends. One of my go-to conversation starters when I meet new people is, “Who’s your favorite companion on Doctor Who, and what do you think of the new direction Steven Moffat’s taking with the season arcs?”

In Ready Player One, Ernest Cline takes nerd culture to its natural extreme. The premise is that billionaire video game creator James Halliday, a child of the ’80s and a nerd of the highest order, builds an MMO so extensive that the entire world plugs in for the majority of the day. Work, school, entertainment, everything is carried out through an online avatar. The world-building on the practicalities of what would go into a virtual world of this scope is fascinating, and well thought-out.

When Halliday dies, it turns out that he’s planted an Easter egg in the program, and whoever can find and solve a series of three puzzles will inherit Halliday’s company along with his entire fortune.

Is anyone else flashing back to The Westing Game here? The old crazy-conditions-in-the-will trope is not new. And the Easter egg is a textbook MacGuffin. It’s valuable in its own right, since it basically makes the recipient the wealthiest person on the planet, but more to the point, it’s a Thing that everyone is chasing. People structure their lives around becoming egg hunters, or “gunters.”

The cool thing about Ready Player One is, first, it’s a marvellous cornucopia of nerd-culture references. Not just video games, but ’80s movies and TV shows, comic books, old-school RPGs, all of it. And for the most part, Cline manages to avoid allusion for allusion’s sake—the characters in the story *have* to study up on their ’80s trivia in order to solve Halliday’s puzzles.

Second, Cline talks a lot about how the social climate is shifted in a virtual world. It’s not purely a didactic, “people should stop escaping into video games and go play outside.” It turns out, if people create their own avatars, factors like appearance, race, and gender turn out to be mostly irrelevant to social interactions; what matters is a person’s intelligence, way of speaking, and progress in the game. Once upon a time, I took a college class called “Sex, Cyborgs, and Society,” and we read a ton of articles about this very issue—does technology flatten all the inequalities of birth? Well, not quite. There are still plenty of assumptions and speculation about an avatar’s “real” identity. But it’s an interesting issue to explore, and Cline plays with the ideas more deftly than most.

Ready Player One

Ready Player One (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hello! This is a blog.

I haven’t quite decided what I want to say in this blog. So why should you read it? That’s an excellent question.

First, a little background about me. My ethos, if you will. (See what I did there? I just dropped some vocabulary on you. I know lots of words.) I’m a storyteller. I’m a consumer of stories. I try to strike some balance between picking apart the threads of a story to see how it all fits together, and wrapping myself up inside that story, letting it work its magic. (See what I did there? In this metaphor, the story is a blanket. I possess the power of metaphor.) (No, I won’t be blatantly pointing out every single writing trick that I use.)

I’m also a recently-fledged adult, living in New York City for the first time. In theory, this means that I possess neither the wisdom and experience of a veteran grown-up, nor the innocence and enthusiasm of a child. I prefer to focus on the positive. In the immortal words of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, “All grown-ups were once children, but only a few of them remember it.” In all my Millenial-generation vainglory, I like to think that I’m still in touch with that side of myself. If xkcd is more your thing, this comic pretty much sums me up.

In this blog, I will definitely talk about books – or, more accurately, stories in any form. Fanfiction,  myths, fairy tales, other people’s blogs, particularly scintillating classified ads – really anything is fair game. I will probably talk about the act of writing. I might talk about my life. I might post bits of my own stories. A lot of it is up to you, dear reader. The cool thing about the Internet is that instead of blindly throwing words into the abyss and hoping someone enjoys reading them, I can work with whatever audience I happen to attract. Use that “comment” button. You want me to ramble about the meaning of life for 2,000 words or so? I can do that. You want a review of the newest Neil Gaiman novel? Absolutely. You want pictures of cute kitties? Well, no, but let me Google that for you.

I will leave you with an explanation of my username, for those of you unfamiliar with the terminology. A MacGuffin is a Thing that the characters in a story want. Often, it causes them to set out on a Quest. It causes Conflict and Plot Development. In most stories, it doesn’t really matter what the MacGuffin is. The Maltese falcon, the One Ring, the Holy Grail, in the end they’re all just Things. They get capital letters. They seem important. They are important. Newton taught us that a body at rest stays at rest, and a body in motion stays in motion. The trick is getting from one state to the other. Stories, just like people’s real lives, need motion; otherwise they rot. A Quest for a Thing is a way to get people moving.

So here I am. Seeking the MacGuffin since the 90s. Blogging about it since… well, since right now.