[In Other Words] Desensitization

Sometimes I have to take a step back and look at how my time on the internet (and most particularly in fandom) has really kind of desensitized me to a lot of things that are generally frowned on — not to say that I condone a lot of these things in real actuality and life, but in fiction, I have reached a point where it takes a genuine lot to shock me in terms of violence or gore or sex.  I have friends whom I respect as people who like some really “awful” things in the grand scheme of the world, and it hardly even begins to bother me.

But then I’ll go to a different forum — like the KDP writer’s forums, or other, less fandom-populated boards — and it’s … not exactly like the proverbial splash of cold water, but it does sort of throw one for a loop.  People talk about how their readers criticized them for being too detailed in a grim scene, that the reader didn’t need that sort of depth of following a character’s struggles through a difficult time.  Meanwhile, if I rewindow to my plurk timeline, people are talking about a visual novel where one of many bad endings involve a messy and unhappy death for the protagonist — not just in written detail, but with full-color illustrations!  And I always have this moment of cognitive dissonance where I have to consider that the “safety” of fandom has basically meant that as long as it’s fiction, I can turn a blind eye to a lot of terrible things.*

* This is not to say that I am completely immune to things.  In all honesty, I am one of those people who can get entirely too invested in the stupidest things.  In high school, when they would show us the shock videos against drinking and driving, complete with the photos of accident victims, I very nearly had a panic attack there in the auditorium.  I am not ashamed to say that I outright begged my teacher to let me skip it when my schedule just happened to be structured so that I would have to see it twice in a day.  For fiction, I still vastly side-eye underage stuff, and narratives that endorse behaviors as healthy, or as acceptable because they are the norm.  If I, as a reader, read something and think, “this is not the narrator, this is the author saying these things and believing them,” beyond whatever constrictions of character voice and unreliable narrators give, then I definitely do not give things a pass.

On the other hand, though, this sometimes leaves me at a loss of what to do about the things I write.  At the risk of sounding like one of those special stars for everyone! people, I really dislike forcing myself to write in a single genre box; sometimes I want to write eldritch horrors, sometimes I want to write a quiet romance, and sometimes I want to write both together.  Sometimes I want to write something that I am reasonably certain my friends would enjoy, but the greater world would look at and believe that I condone these things, rather than want to explore something through the lens of fiction.  Most of the time I end up writing these things, but once they’re done and as polished as they can be, that’s when I’m at a loss, because what do I do with this?  If (completely nonhypothetically; this is done with its revisions and as ready for the world at large as it can be) I write a story about an unreliable narrator watching his stepfather abuse his brother and eventually take (bloody) justice into his own hands — only to imply at the end that he is on the cusp of following in the dead man’s footsteps — what do I do with a story like that?  Sure, there’s an audience for that out there somewhere, but that’s not my normal audience.

Honestly, I can’t with any confidence say what I want my “normal audience” to be.  All conventional wisdom I have seen about self-pubbing boils down to “build a solid base and they will come; build a solid base and then advertise yourself and be true to those roots.”  And there are people who primarily write erotica (which I sort of have done to date, though I feel like I probably stray more towards hardcore in softcore romance than anything else), people who primarily write horror, and people who write thrillers and fantasy and sci-fi — in the traditional world of publishing, you don’t see a whole lot of crossover of genres.

But in fanfic, where I got started, you had the freedom to do that sort of thing all the time.  You could build yourself a name in fandom because you had the umbrella of the canon, rather than the genre.  And in some ways, I think I’ve been spoiled by that — fandom taught me that there’s very little that won’t find an audience out there somewhere, and that if you write it, they will come.  (Just like they say about self-pubbing, though that’s a much, much bigger pond with sharks in the water.)  So if the whim takes me and I decide, “I want to write a story where a character observes abusive incest and doesn’t realize how unreliable he himself is becoming,” I do that; and if I decide, “I want to write a story where a man quietly realizes he’s falling in love with someone who is utterly unsuited for him, but loves him honestly back,” I do that.  And what that shows about me as a writer to people who don’t know me, I honestly don’t know.  I don’t want to be someone who strangles the stories she wants to tell because they don’t fit her “image,” but does that mean I don’t create an image, period?  Instead of seeming like someone with varied interests and tastes and likes to explore a lot of different things, do I just seem indecisive and careless, flinging myself blindly onto a shock bandwagon and then off again onto the coattails of this genre or that subject?

Honestly, I don’t know that answer.  And to be fair, I’ve only really been considering it for the past six months, since I started self-pubbing.  To date I have eight stories available, and most of them are under 20k words.  That’s not really enough to really establish anything, except that at I am at least trying to do more than simply “publish story and expect things to happen.”  Ultimately, I don’t really care if I can’t make a living off my writing — just as long as there are people out there who are reading and enjoying.  If I could build even a small group of people who could trust me no matter what topic/genre I choose to write, that would be pretty fabulous.

Who knows if that will happen!  But hey, I can always dream.

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[In Other Words] My Pace

I think, if I were to pick my number one method of self-sabotage, it would be my short attention span.

My personal story isn’t too different from a lot of writers (would-be or otherwise) that I know, in that I was telling stories at a very young age — what started out as epic and convoluted fantasies involving plastic dinosaurs, Korean Barbie knockoffs, and my various stuffed animals (narrated diligently into a cassette recorder, and boy doesn’t that date me?) became actually writing things down, and that’s where my proclivity stayed.  Beyond fanfic, though, it took me years before I could actually make my whole way through a story, beginning-middle-end.

The problem wasn’t always having ideas, because those I had (and still have, let’s be honest) by the dozen — the problem was having the discipline and attention to actually keep going through a story until its end.  I can’t do detailed outlines, because then I feel like I have already written the whole story and I’m stuck with just a skeleton; I can’t skip around because if I write the “fun” parts, I’ll never get through the necessary bridging pieces.  I like to think that as I get older, I’m getting better at it, though how true that actually is, I’m not honestly certain.  There is certainly more than enough free time in my day to get more done — that’s in between working full-time and doing the majority of the cooking.  I can, when I sit down and dedicate myself, write about a thousand words in forty-five minutes, and I’m given to understand that’s not too shabby.

But I have other hobbies too — I like cooking, I play games, I badger my roommates into going out to eat, because that’s definitely my most expensive hobby.  (Oops.)  I read; I look at pictures of cute animals; I do a dozen little timewaster things that all add up, and sometimes I will catch myself thinking, “Man, I really should be writing instead.”

I’m really afraid of burnout, though; writing is definitely a thing that I love to do with my all of me, but — and maybe it’s because of that whole attention span problem — I can get burned out easily.  More frightening than that, I’ve seen other friends attempt to dedicate themselves to things and completely wreck themselves for a once-beloved hobby; I’ve seen people swear off something they loved to do because they pushed themselves too hard with no sort of middle ground, and ended up crashing spectacularly.  And I know that’s kind of against a lot of advice blogs I have seen, especially in regards to writing or art — you do have to keep pushing yourself, they say; you have to push yourself to your limits and beyond or else you’ll never get anywhere with it.  There are hundreds of thousands of people who want to do this too, you have to strive to make your own success.

And you know, I don’t think that’s wrong, either, but — I also think that sort of thing applies best to a certain kind of person, and I don’t think that’s the type that I am.  I love writing, and I love telling stories, and I think I’m not too bad at it, overall.  But I don’t have it in myself to pour my all of me recklessly and desperately into something; I like safety nets and having Plans B-D.  I want very much to continue with this writing habit and share my stories in any way I can — I’m excited for each and every sale (though I don’t have many) because it signifies that someone is reading something I wrote!  And that is the most exciting thing.

Except, at the same time, I don’t want to sacrifice the other things I do in my day.  I mean, I’d love it if I could be self-sufficient selling my writing alone; I don’t think there’s any writer who wouldn’t be thrilled with that.  But like I said, I prefer my safety net (especially with my family’s history of health ailments), and I like my other hobbies too.  I feel like they give me a more well-rounded approach to the world; I feel like my writing is more interesting for not being the only thing in my life.

So I write about a thousand words a night (more on the weekends usually, depending on how busy those are); I have a resolution to write 365k words this year, and I’m already over halfway there.  I’m not producing dozens of dozens of stories, though maybe one a month isn’t a super terrible pace.  (Of course that does depend on the length of the story itself; most of what I have up on Amazon and Smashwords average about 4k to 8k, though the last two have been significantly longer, and the one that I have in-progress right now just broke 20k words.)

I still have a large number of stories in my head, and sometimes I get fussy because I’d rather be working on them, I want to work on something else, I don’t want to keep plugging at the thing that was so new and shiny when I first started it.  But I guess with age comes more discipline, so even if I still waste a lot of time in an evening playing dumb flash games or going out somewhere, I’m still getting things done.

I’m glad for that.

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the woods behind the house (a story)

We walk on the path behind the house
with its wide, wide,
W I D E
windows, all open, like eyes.
Duck and don’t meet them.
Don’t let them see you seeing.
(There are hungry shadows.)
(Their teeth are sharper than ours.)
We walk on the path behind the house
with my hand in yours,
with your hand in mine,
and the wide wide windows
stare after us as we go.
(Once they were us.)
(Sometimes they look at remember.)
Into the woods we go,
the deep, deep,
D E E P
dark and quiet woods behind the house,
which smells like dirt and things that are living
(and things that are dead).
(There are skeletons buried here.)
(Do not go looking for them.)
Into the woods with go,
with leaves in our hair,
with leaves under our feet,
and the deep deep dark
watches us as we go.
(They have eaten us before.)
(Our blood is in their teeth.)
I will take the knife and put it in your hand
and its sharp, sharp,
S H A R P
edge gleams like bright silver.
It has a home inside of me,
like once it was inside of you.
(Once I thought we could leave.)
(But leaving is only temporary.)

Return what was once mine to me.
And we will start once more
on the path behind the house.

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[In Other Words] I wrote what I felt and got a hangover instead

Today I gave myself a feelings hangover over a story I’m writing — less because of the content (though it is probably the most hardcore and dubious thing I have ever written) and more because when I ran it by my beta team, the initial response from both of them was that it was too derivative of a story.  Which, I think, on one hand, is not necessarily a bad thing — I got my start with fanfic and I still write it now and then (as evidenced by numerous entries in this blog) — but was really the last thing I wanted to hear for this particular story.  I ended up thinking so hard and getting so invested in trying to fix it that I ended up with a headache, sore eyes, and that queasy-vague feeling that upright wasn’t really the position I wanted to be in.

(Hello; how’s this for a first non-fiction post for this blog.)

At this point, I’m honestly not sure how much of this story is salvageable — or even if it is something I want to share beyond a carefully-controlled group of people.  It’s the sort of thing that covers a lot of stuff I absolutely recoil against in real life but really enjoy exploring in fiction.  While I don’t outright try to embrace going against the status quo, or writing/exploring things for their shock value, I’ve never really wanted to stay in a particular genre of writing, either.  I think there are certain reoccurring elements that I return to a lot in terms of setting and style, but honestly, I tend towards short stories over novels, and I think part of that is because I can dabble in a lot of genres at once.  I don’t honestly know how this looks to someone who just stumbles across my stories on Amazon, especially if I decide to publish the one I’m currently working on, because it is pretty downright dark and focuses on several touchy subjects together.

To date my Amazon collection are a few erotic m/m stories, a couple paranormal erotica m/f stories, and one strange fairytale beast that I would classify as a love story and a horror story both.  I’ve heard people discuss using different pen names for writing in different genres, and while I can see the wisdom of that, I also am not sure how much I want to follow on that.  Maybe it’s because I got my start in fandom, where the people I generally interacted with did run the whole gamut from humor to erotica to sometimes the outright bizarre or dark.  I don’t really want to separate out what I write into categories — for one thing, I’m not really sure that Amazon would allow me that many pen names. ;)

So yeah, at this point, I’m still dealing with a lot of trial and error in how I handle everything.  I don’t particularly think I will be one of the raging success stories — but I think if I could make someone feel as intensely as I do writing (like with that story today, the one I am slowly hammering more details into, the one that may or may not ever see the light of day), I think that’d be more than good enough for me.

… that’s a pretty trite paragraph to end this entry with, but what can I say?  Sometimes the trite derivative thing works best.

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[In Other Words] Adulthood is a many-peculiar thing

When I was a kid, I genuinely believed adulthood was some magical point in my life (I had arbitrarily decided 27, because at the time 27 seemed like a really long way off, and surely by then I would be all the things I thought I would become) where some switch flipped and I would stop liking “childish” things (as deemed by my parents) and stop being lazy; I would gladly clean and cook and work and do all the things that I was meant to do, and my hobbies would be staid and calm and easy to handle on a few hours at a time.  I’d read more, and I’d write no-nonsense literary things sometimes, and I’d occasionally watch TV.  I wouldn’t be interested in surfing the internet; I wouldn’t want to play video games or go shopping or read comics; I would be An Adult and that would be the end of that.

In retrospect, I can look back and tell it was because my parents were — and still are — very practical and no-nonsense people.  Mom’s hobbies are gardening and romance novels — which she herself always disclaimed as silly and told me I shouldn’t read (though whether it was because she didn’t want me to read the florid dirty bits or not, I’m not sure); Dad’s are science and math and deep thought (he likes to sit with a beer in His Chair for hours, and even if the TV is running, he’s not really paying attention; he likes the background noise).  They were both hard workers when they were part of the 9-6 crowd; they were and are always practical people.  We didn’t go on fancy away vacations or even pay much attention to popular culture — my parents both came from poor backgrounds and were determined to make a better life for themselves and for me here in the US.  Dad liked to say, when I was in college, that my graduation present wouldn’t be a new car (which I never asked for) or anything like that, it would be to be debt-free.

(Even then, I thought that was the far better present.  In some ways I am very much my parents’ daughter.)

My friends’ parents were always more relaxed, and honestly, my parents had their vices that didn’t really fit with my idea of Adulthood, but that didn’t really change my impression that someday, someday, I’d become a responsible person who would do her chores and keep her room clean and not waste hours on the computer doing absolutely nothing of any real worth.  I held onto that idea through college, because that was my first real test and taste of the real idea of Adulthood — I had chosen to go to the University of Washington in Seattle, which was a far cry from my childhood home in Austin, Texas.  I wouldn’t be able to just call my parents up and have them show up to help me if I needed it (like the horror stories I’d heard about people who’d let themselves go once they were in college) — they’d help me, of course, if I needed it, but in the every day stuff, I would be on my own.  My half of my dorm room started out neat, but slowly became more and more of a disaster area — I’m lucky I had roommates that were either tolerant of me, not around very often, or friends who just made fun of it (affectionately, I’m sure, but there’s a grain of truth in the fact that I am a tremendous slob).  And I still continued to think that someday I would be an Adult and then I’d take care of everything properly and on time.  No procrastinating until the last day to do things; no being lazy until I was panicking for being behind.

I graduated still thinking this, living in a rented house with four friends and working my Real Adult Job! with my room still a minor disaster area and grumbling in my heart about doing the dishes and how much I missed a proper dishwasher.  (At one point I even caught myself hesitating over a pair of CDs I wanted and realizing, to my bemused horror, that I was waiting to ask my parents for permission, as if it was still money that I had received from them, to be subject to their approval or otherwise.)  I moved out of that house and into an apartment with a friend from college and it was more of the same, especially with the dishes.  I moved into an apartment by myself and all that having a room to myself meant was that my stuff had even more space to spread out all over.  I got a cat and I was better about keeping his litterbox cleaned than my bedroom.  I bought a condo (with help and advice from my parents — most of the down payment money came out of an account that they had set up for me at birth, and which was handed over to me when I turned 21, but they did gift me money to help with it) and I have a significant other and roommates who pay me rent.  I still have the cat.

I still have the vaguely disastrous mess all over the place, and the kneejerk protest in my heart when I have to do dishes or take out the trash and recycling; I spent most of today out at the University Street Fair (love it! ♥) and then playing a silly farming game.  I haven’t done my daily writing — and honestly, most of the time, my daily writing happens in the last hour before I have to shower and get ready for bed (which is usually later than it should be).  I’m proud of myself for managing to keep my kitchen sink empty and (relatively) clean for about a week and a half now.  I’m almost thirty and I still play video games and read comics and write genre-focused stuff (no fancy literature for me, it seems) and sometimes I spend an entire weekend doing nothing of worth.  There are weeks where we eat or order out over 50% of the time.  That magic switch I imagined in my childhood is apparently an entire lie.

On the other hand, I have a full-time job with benefits, which is a pretty amazing thing in this day and age — one that I enjoy with decent pay and managers I respect and trust — I have a mortgage, I have a significant other, I bought a brand-new washer and dryer the other year when the old ones died.  My cat is fat and happy and healthy.  I’m fat and happy and healthy.  I’m writing regularly and managing to finish things, even if that’s at a slow pace, and even if I am just one of hundreds of thousands (of millions?) of people who are dabbling in the ebook self-pub market.

It’d still be nice if I could get the gumption to do my cleaning without a lot of internal whining and procrastinating, but as far as Adulthood goes, I like what I ended up with a lot better than what I imagined all those years ago.

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[D.Gray-Man] Letters Home

Dear Mother,

I have just received my proper uniform — can you imagine! Your Andrew, a man in an armed service, though certainly not the sort that either of us might have imagined, when I was a child playing soldiers. It is certainly not as fine as the uniforms of the Exorcists, as far as I have seen, but it is very comfortable, and the material is both soft and fine. There is a cloak of wool that has a hood, and it is remarkably good at keeping out the cold and wet; I am very grateful for it, with the coming of the English winter.

Please remember your Andrew fondly, Mother, for today, he begins on his road to being a true hero. Perhaps in a few years the war will be over, and I will be able to return. They have promised me a pension that would make Old Ivers down the road green with envy, him in his fine house and his six-horse stable. I am looking forward to that, and I will accept your boxing my ears for my pride. I will be glad to be able to take care of the all of you.

Give my love to Da and the rest.

Your loving son,
Andrew

Dear Mother,

Today they are sending us to help out with a situation in America. I have never been there before, but I have heard they are both very rude and very friendly. I do not know which it will be, so I shall have to wait and see what happens when I get there.

Pray for me.

I hope that the money arrived safely. I know that the landlord gets foul-tempered when we are anywhere close to on time, as opposed to a week early. If it is not, I hope you have the sense to complain. They promised me that you would be provided for, and if you are not, then what am I doing here that is going back on their word, and that is not the sort of behavior you would expect from the Church. Please give my love to Da and the brats. I hope to be home for Christmas.

Your loving son,
Andrew

Dear Mother,

My group managed to make it all back entirely in one piece. That sounds quite dramatic, doesn’t it? But it was really a very quiet sort of mission. I have heard of worse, especially when it is something that they will actually send an Exorcist for. This was no such thing; we were simply sent to research the rumors of something strange in a mountain village. It turned out to be nothing more than a few drunks telling stories and being too embarrassed to recant them when they were sober.

I hope it is because you prayed for me. Did you? My heart felt lighter the whole time.

We are going to a pub tonight. The team leader is treating us. They have said they would like to see how much it would take me to get drunk. Please do not tell Father Smith, as I know that he would not approve. I will raise a toast to you and Da tonight, I promise.

Your loving son,
Andrew

Dear Mother,

I met an Exorcist face to face today, for the first time. She wasn’t any older than me. In fact, I think she might have been younger than me. She was very pretty, actually, but she was an Oriental woman, and I know that you do not think very highly of those. She gave me coffee and smiled. It has been a long time since I have seen a pretty girls mile. Do you think Oriental women have souls, the way the English do? She is an Exorcist, after all; perhaps God made an exception for her.

I regret to mention I did not get her name, but I am not sure you would be interested to hear it. She was very kind, though, and her manners were good. You would approve of them, I think. Please do not tell Da, as I have kept my hands & others to myself.

They are sending us out on another mission soon. I have heard the members of my unit talking. It sounds like we might be going with an Exorcist this time. Right now, though, everything is a rumor, and I am content to not assume just yet.

Please, please pray for me. I want to come home for Christmas.

I will write again when I return. I will make sure that it goes out with the compensation they are sending to you; I hope that it will be enough, with Christopher’s cold and the rent.

Your loving son,
Andrew

Dear Mother,

Did you know, when Grandda’s Akuma attacked the farm, I never really saw it up close? I remember you screaming and Da yelling; I remember having to herd the children away so that we could hide. I remember looking through the window and seeing it, and I thought that it looked so much like Grandma that I would have been entirely fooled. I would have greeted her and then she would have gutted me.

The Akuma that we dealt with was no such thing, this time.

It had — oh, Mother, I don’t know that I could describe it in a way that would be fitting for your eyes. It had two heads; it had completely shed any semblance of being a human being. Whatever soul it might have once been, that thing’s long gone to dust now, God or the Devil take it! The Millennium Earl is surely an emissary of Satan, if not one and the same. I still feel a chill in my bones even trying to remember the shape of it, bulbous and swollen and the color of a three-week bruise in the sky …

Three of my friends are dead now. It happened so fast that I didn’t even realize it until their blood was upon it. We have been forbidden to send away to let their families know, just in case. The funeral will be soon; I have heard that other groups are returning with their numbers reduced as well. The Akuma are getting fiercer, I have heard; they are more determined to rend and tear; they are “leveling up,” as they refer to it.

I saw the Exorcist who gave me coffee the other month; she was so swathed in bandages that I thought it was a marvel that she was still in one place. She wept for us — not my group, not just them, but for the Finders that had been with her. I think that perhaps, even if she is not an Englishwoman, she must certainly have a proper gentle soul.

I swear to you, though, I swear, I shall be utterly certain to make sure that you will hear tell. I will not be buried in their dark narrow graveyard; I will come to my homeland for my final rest.

The hour is growing late, and I do not know if I am able to sleep, but I will try. Please give my love to Da and the children; please give me your prayers.

Your loving son,
Andrew

Dear Mother,

I wonder if this will be the end. We have been barricaded in this little house for hours now; possibly days. The Exorcist with us has been killed. It was horrible — I have learned so many things about the way a man’s bones may grind before they pop and shatter, and I pray that this is a knowledge that will never go beyond myself and those in my unit.

Our leader is dead as well. He was taken out so fast — one moment he was speaking to us, and then his head was split cleanly in half. Before he fell our Exorcist was moving, and though he fought hard and desperately, in the end …

God in Heaven save us, I do not want to die. Mother, sweet Mother, please, if God truly is there in His Heaven and can hear the cries of His children, please be thinking of me in this instant, and please give me your prayers, for I do not know how long we can hold out — our radio is destroyed, our golem has been shattered, and we have nothing between us and the demon outside but thin walls of wood, and I can hear the claws scratching to be let in.

Dearest Mother, please give your prayers to your poor Andrew, so he can come home again.

Your loving son———

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under all that cold

On Tuesday evenings they have story time. If she is very good and if the weather is not too cold (it makes her brother’s knees ache, and he cannot sit for very long that way if the snow has piled too thick on the windows, seeping in), then after everything has been put away and things are quiet and still, then she picks a book from their small collection and brings it over to her brother. He always pretends to be surprised, though he smiles at her with all the warmth she has come to expect from him.

“What’s this?” he asks. It is the first line of their ritual, the signal that he is willing, that he is willing and they may proceed.

She hands the book to him. Right now, they are working through a collection of fairytales, and she has memorized nearly all of them now, but they are too precious to rush. When he takes it, she says to him: “It’s story-time. Will you please read to me?”

Then he smiles, the expression making his entire face crinkle up into something gentle and soft. During the day, during the rest of the week, he is always so stern that sometimes she forgets that this is her brother, the gentle person who has always been by her side, even after all the world fell apart outside. But when he smiles, she remembers, and she climbs up to sit, half on his lap and half in his chair, tucked up nice and neat against his side. He is never very warm, even at the best of times, but she puts her head against his chest and she can hear the steady rumble of his heartbeat and it comforts her.

He opens the book and puts a hand on her shoulder, and the other he uses to prop the book up. She holds the other end; this way it’s collaborative. It is her job to listen, and to turn the pages when he reaches the end of one.

And then he reads to her. His voice is soft enough that all the rough edges are smoothed away. He reads steadily and without hesitation; the words are so familiar that they slide off his tongue without effort. There are so few books in their collection that she has come to know all of them well, but even so, she cannot make herself actually stop with this. As long as there is this, on Tuesdays, she can tuck herself up and feel comforted.

Once upon a time, in a kingdom far, far away, there lived a princess in a splendid castle, who had everything she could wish for. But even so, she was unsatisfied with her life.

This is one of her favorite stories. The spoiled princess sets off on a journey to find what she is missing in her life, only to discover that the special treasure — the one that eludes her despite her wealth and power — is love. She rescues a prince who tells her that he loves her — for you are fair and you are wealthy, and I think that the two of us could always be comfortable with our lives together — but her journeys have changed her, and in the end she returns to her home and sees how her servants smile and her people rejoice to see her, and she realizes that she did, in fact, have love; she had simply blinded herself to it, and she lives happily ever after.

It’s a nice story. Sometimes she tries to imagine it — to live somewhere splendid and beautiful, to live where food isn’t a struggle every day (every other day, sometimes, when the cold is particularly bad for a long stretch of time), or somewhere that doesn’t have cold seeping up from all the places where their patchwork walls don’t quite succeed in sheltering them. She thinks about how it would be if they could live somewhere that doesn’t make her brother’s bad knee ache, or where she doesn’t sometimes wake to see her breath misting in the air, her throat dry and aching. No matter how hard she tries, though, she can’t quite actually envision it. The cold is too much a part of what she knows, weighing heavy and white and stretched in her vision. The sun sometimes seems like a fairy tale in and of itself, too vague and brilliant to really solidify in her vision.

Even though she can’t imagine it though, she still sometimes likes to try. She listens to her brother read the familiar words. And the princess set out into the world, for it seemed foolish to her that there could be anything she was missing, but she could feel it there, weighed in her heart. She took a dress of silver, a bag made of gold, and a staff of the diamond shine of stars, and she set out on her journey. Far and wide she traveled, and people watched her go with awe in their eyes, for she was a lovely princess and she walked with the same grace as the distant winds.

Sometimes, if the day had been hard (all of the days were hard, even if the snow was soft and heavy, always piling deeper and deeper), she would fall asleep to the sound of his voice, low and steady, pitched so that it wouldn’t crack, even on the sharp edges of fricatives. If she is tired (and she is often tired), she lets her head come to rest on his chest, and she closes her eyes, and she dreams of a world where the sun is shining and the snow has melted away to a carpet of green. She dreams of having a dress of silver, a bag of gold, and a staff of the diamond shine of stars, and this she would turn and give to her brother, by her side.

These are for you, she says, for love.

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warning

there is a place behind the house
where the trees grow close together and their branches twist like clasping arms
(if you listen to the wind you can hear voices for real, not just the pretend ones that mimic talking)
(they tell each other stories and they sing songs together and you can’t understand the words, but they make your throat hurt just to hear)
if you go there when the moon is full — never mind how mother scolds or father forbids — you will see something grand
if you are brave enough, if you are clever enough, if you walk barefoot through the brambles and the grass under the full moon, you will see ladies dancing
they are all beautiful
of course they are beautiful, but there is something more to it than that, if you are willing to look
(not many people are; most people end up quiet and afraid instead)
they are all tall, and some are lean and some are not, but they are all graceful as they move together, her arm in hers and in hers but also in hers
there are twigs in their hair, which is long and soft, like the gossamer of spiderwebs
if you are quiet you can watch them dance for hours
if they hear you, though …
you might be bold and you must be clever, for they are an old race and it has been many years since they have had a child of their own
(for you and i are children to them; even our grandparents are children, in their eyes)
they are hungry mothers; they are empty-armed and savage-eyed; they are wailing in the wind for what they cannot have
if they hear you, if they see you, then they will chase you
and you must run
(do not think to stay, for if you do and if they catch you, you will no longer be yourself)
you must run without looking back, for to do that is to pause, and to pause is to court capture
their arms are long and their fingers are thin; they are good for grasping and for pinching and digging in deep
run through the brambles and do not let them stop you; do not let the pain slow you down
(they are coming, they are singing, they are howling their names to the wind)
if you make it back — if you cross the threshold made of the wood of their sisters, they will stop
they will stop but their voices will still call to you, hungry and wanting, all through the cracks in the walls; their fingers will dig in deep and they will croon that they have a name for you, something new, something grand, if only you would step forward and take it
(do not step forward to take it)
for the whole of the night they will try to court you, you who are a child to them; you who are an infant in the eyes of something old and strange in the world — they will cry and they will call
do not look through your windows, do not look at their faces; do not be seduced by their dancing
in the morning they will go back to the forest, where it is quiet and dark
and where the trees lace their branches together like arms in an embrace
they will go back, and you must never go there again; carry bread and salt and silver in your pocket and pray that when night falls again and for all the rest of your years, no matter how far and wide you travel, you will be beyond a threshold, out of the reach of the hungry dark
they will remember you
they are waiting

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a love letter

In a world that is dark and quiet and built only of two people (you and me), let us bring a single spark.

Let us take the knives of our words and our experiences, the trappings of our lives that have brought us on separate journeys to this shared point. Let us find the places where things are soft and stretched and open, so that the cut can be clean and easy and maybe (maybe) painless at first.

In time it will hurt. In time there will be rough edges, the sharpness of infection that spreads and stretches its spiderweb fingers until it touches the horizon and the wide spreading sky. Let us gather that up in our hands until they are overflowing, until we are so full that we cannot conceive of more, and yet it comes and it comes and it will not stop coming.

Let us take all of these things, and then let us put lights in this world. Not too many, not too bright; there are some things that are better and kinder when they cannot be seen clearly. In some places let us make the place as bright as the day, little places to show the things that we must: our honesty, our loves, our selves.

But let the light fade as it stretches. Let it gently shift into shadow, so that things are softened and shaded. We can adjust the angles if we need to later. Right now, let us just make sure that these places still exist. Both of these things are important. We need to pay attention to that.

Once that is done — once we are settled and we have built out this framework, this skeleton of touches and smiles and interaction, then we can create something more. This is where the skin is exposed; this is where we can slice through into muscle and bone and excavate what we can of what came before, so that new pieces may be laid into place. You will smile at me and I will call your name, and together we will bring together the materials we need to make something grand.

And it will be grand. It will be glorious; it will be the sort of thing that rises high and proud and will burn like phoenix fire, so that even if — when — if someday the heart goes dim and the flames die back, there will still be embers. There will be places that have burned so deeply that they are not even scars, but part of the landscape itself, carved in so deep that they cannot be separated. Maybe there was a time when these things were different, but after us, we will no longer be able to remember that.

We will build something that reaches straight into heaven. We will not stop building until the day we abruptly do, when everything begins to crumble under our feet and everything stable is suddenly ash and dust. Even then, sometimes, if you turn your face to the sky and close your eyes, you will be able to see it. The ghost will linger.

This is what we will make together, in this quiet soft place. There will be times for noise and for commotion — we cannot exist only in soft breaths and muffled heartbeats, but we cannot exist without these things either. I will put down a pillow and you will bring a blanket and our feet will touch and our hands will be distant, but it will still be a place of you and of me, it will be separate entities that have come together in a single identity.

I will sing for you, I will put my heart gently down in a silk-lined box and I will take yours and put it into my breast instead. We will manage this without anesthetic and it will not hurt except for in a fierce glad way. These are the first sparks of the empire that will be ours. (May it last a thousand years and more.)

Let us continue to build on it. I do not like the idea of coming apart. There is always the potential for things to fall apart; I have known that for years, and the knowledge is easy as my own heartbeat. (My heart is easy, but it always breaks.) Instead of that, I want to build as a means to creation, not destruction. My disasters are such quiet things, but I still remember each one.

I do not want this to be one.

Give me your hand. In this quiet dark place built for only two people (only you and me), let us make a miracle.

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Online dating

So there’s this site, okay? I mean, there’s a dozen like it — eHarmony, Match.com, stuff like that — they’re all over the place these days. People are too busy or shy or socially awkward or who even knows to get a date the old-fashioned way, so they end up turning to the internet. That’s where we’re all going to end up in the end, online, our relationships and our interactions broken down into a series of 0s and 1s.

And I mean, hey, there’s nothing wrong with that. Some of my best friends are people I’ve met online. My girlfriend is someone who started out as one of those people. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, just that it’s a kind of inevitable thing, from where I’m standing. Everything about this whole world is hurtling towards digitization, and romance is already kind of halfway there.

So, anyway. This site. I can’t actually tell you the URL, because it’s super hush-hush. One of those things that you can only tell in whispers and secret messages passed along. PMs or something like that. But the thing is, come on, we’ve all heard about those other sites and we’ve all rolled our eyes at how ridiculous they are. (I know I have, at least. I’m going to guess most people have, even the ones who’ve gone on to use them, and hey, more power to them.) When you actually step back and look at what they’re promising, it’s pretty ridiculous, yeah? Even if it’s effective. (Which is not to say it isn’t always, but I’ve got some horror stories about an ex-roommate who was convinced she’d met her True Soulmate! on eHarmony and the whole rollarcoaster of suck that their relationship was for everyone else who was even peripherally involved.)

But this site, man. It’s the real deal. One hundred percent — one thousand percent. I’d guarantee it with everything I’ve got.

I mean, in the interests of full honesty and disclosure and blah blah blah (I’m no lawyer, but I’ve got friends who are): it’s not the site I went to; that’s not how I met my girlfriend. It’s not like I’ve actually had the guts to put in my name to see what would come up. I like my relationship. We’ve had our ups and our downs and our occasional gross sobbing fights, but that’s only normal, right? You’d expect that from anything where two different people are suddenly living together and learning to deal with someone else in their space, and the adaption thereof.

I’ve got a friend, though — well, okay, more like a friend of a friend — who did it. We’ve known each other for years, always kind of on the edges of each other’s social circles. Between our mutual friend and a few others, we were usually kind of aware of each other, but there was no real friendship between us. Friendly acquaintenceship? There should be a word for that sort of thing. Anyway, this friend of a friend had a pretty bad breakup a year ago. It was the sort of thing you see in terrible movies or at least soap operas — screaming and shouting and throwing things until she stormed out of the apartment and called up our mutual friend, who happened to be hanging out with me that night. Normally I wouldn’t be one to tag along, especially for something that private, but before I could make my excuses and call a cab, I guess she heard my voice or something, and said I should come too. At that point, it’d be kind of shitty to back out, right? It’s not like there was any trouble in my paradise or nothing.

So yeah, we went and we got her, and we loaded up on chocolate and also booze, and we drove back to our friend’s apartment and we sat down and listened to her rant and complain and judiciously applied mood-lifters. It was the sort of thing you’d expect: he never listened, he was never there, he was dismissive of her interests and made fun of her hobbies while expecting her to adopt his without complaint. It was also just kind of sad, because you could hear all the ways that two people just sort of … smashed against each other and broke off pieces of themselves until all they could see was the ugliest parts.

We ended up talking until sometime after midnight. I admit, I passed out first — I have to get up early for my job, I had gotten up at six or something awful like that — and I guess they dropped a blanket over me and let me stay where I fell, because the next thing I knew, I was waking up and it was completely dark, except for the glow of a computer. And the girl who’d had the breakup — man, that’s awkward, let’s just call her Bea, okay? — was sitting on the floor with her back against the couch, staring at the computer. I’m going to guess you’ve seen someone lit by only a computer’s screen before, because let’s face it, a lot of us people who spend lots of time on the internet are pretty late owl types. It makes you look kind of weird, angles and hollowed out places, like chunks of your face have just been cut away and leaving only shadows behind. I was too sleep-stupid to really get that, though, and though I didn’t say something, I’m pretty sure I made a noise, because she looked at me.

Okay, okay, let’s take a break for a moment to get this straight: I don’t scare easily. I startle like nothing else. Jump scares get me all the time. But being scared? Like, deep down, punched in your soul, claws in your throat and your chest and seeing all sorts of hideous things in the shadows because your imagination has just kicked into overdrive scared? That doesn’t happen to me a lot.

But looking at her, right then and there, still more than half asleep, I was more scared than I’d been in my entire life. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the way she looked right then. Someone had scooped out her eyes, I remembered thinking, and left nothing but sockets that were ringed in blood.

Then I blinked and suddenly things were normal again. Bea was smiling, and there was something kind of creepy about that too, but she just told me she was sorry if she’d woken me. And like hell I was going to admit anything, so I just shook my head and put it back down.

I don’t think I slept any more that night, though, to be honest. I heard her close the computer and leave at some point when the room was less dark and more muffled gray.

(Here’s the other thing, that I only realized later, when I was more awake and less on the verge of piss-my-pants freaked out: she hadn’t brought a computer with her when she’d come with us. I didn’t have mine, and our friend kept hers in her room; she practically slept with the thing. There was no way anyone could have taken it from her.)

My friend thanked me for sticking around, I made all the right sympathetic noises — it sucked, I was sorry, I hoped she’d be feeling better soon. After that, we didn’t really talk about it, and then, two weeks later, Bea calls us both up to say she wants to introduce us to her new boyfriend. Which, okay, kind of fast? Especially for someone who’d been sobbing about how she thought she was being cheated on, but hell, I’m old-fashioned sometimes. My timetable isn’t someone else’s, so we all agreed we’d meet for drinks.

And the guy that Bea brings with her is like, pretty much drop dead gorgeous. Celebrity-level pretty. Prettier! It was kind of weird, too; he was the sort of guy who literally had heads turning to follow him, women and men both, but to tell you the truth, I’m not sure I could actually describe him. His hair was black except maybe it was blonde, or it was dark red or brown or … it’s hard to remember. His eyes were blue with green and gray but then they were such a light brown they were almost gold and I kept trying to look into them to get an idea, but whenever I thought that’s it, I would get distracted and something would seem different.

But he was a nice enough guy. Really your old fashioned sort of chivalrous — he took Bea’s coat for her, pulled out a chair for her, the whole works. And he didn’t even seem condescending about it either. There’s a really fine line about that sort of thing, and he never crossed it, not once.

His name was Dave, and he was sort of ridiculously perfect. He knew everything about everything, but he wasn’t obnoxious about it; he had enough modesty and genuine humor at himself to keep him from tipping over. I could tell our friends liked him a lot, and even my girlfriend kept giving him the eye now and then, but me …

There was absolutely nothing wrong about him, except that sometimes when I looked at him, I saw scooped-out hollow sockets in his face instead of eyes, and when he smiled with his teeth, it looked more like a skull’s rictus grin than an actual human expression.

Later, I went to get us more drinks, Bea followed me. She was smiling more than I’d ever seen her before, this secret little grin, like she had the best kept secret in the world.

“Isn’t he great?” she asked me, as I placed our orders and was waiting for the bartender to get to me. “He’s perfect.”

“He’s nice,” I agreed, kind of cautiously. I didn’t want her to think I was the weird one, here, and it wasn’t like he’d done anything to really deserve me treating him badly. “I’m glad you met him.”

She looked at me with this weird look in her eyes. My girlfriend says that one of my big problems is that I always overthink things, but right then, I definitely had the feeling that she knew about what I’d seen in Dave, and in her, two weeks ago.

Bea reached into her purse and took something out — it was a slip of paper, with something scribbled on it. “You should look it up sometime,” she said, smiling. “I mean, I met Dave through this site. Just in case.”

“Hey,” I protested, “I’m not the one who’s single right now. Girlfriend, remember?”

“There’s always someone better,” she told me. “You should remember that.”

She grabbed her drink and walked away, leaving me to carry the rest. I could definitely say that I was glad she wasn’t really my friend in that moment, even if she thought she was doing me a favor.

Later that night, after we’d split up and my girlfriend was getting ready for bed, I took out the piece of paper that Bea gave me. I was going to just throw it away, but even when I crumpled it up, I couldn’t make myself toss it. I ended up stuffing it back into my pocket, and then I told my girlfriend that I was going to stay up for a bit longer. Writing to do, the internet to waste time on, stuff like that. She just kissed my cheek and said to not stay up too late, don’t forget you have an early morning tomorrow, too, and she went to bed.

Me? I booted up my laptop in the living room, and I typed that URL in.

At first glance it didn’t look too different from those other match sites — there were various photos of couples hugging each other and smiling for the camera in all their Photoshopped glory, and the site’s name in big blocky red letters. There was the usual spiel about love and soulmates, and then an invitation to take their personality test, to be properly sorted and matched.

And I clicked the link. It’s not like I was unhappy or anything — but I’d filled out an eHarmony survey once, for laughs (and with my girlfriend doing the same, though she’d gotten bored with the fifty thousand questions about halfway through, and I’d given up maybe three-quarters of the way), so I figured it wouldn’t be too different.

The screen went black for a moment. I could see my own face reflected in it, and I saw that my eyes were hollow sockets. Even though I wasn’t smiling, I could see all my teeth spread in a skeleton’s bare grin.

Before the survey could finish loading, I killed the tab and immediately cleared my cache. And for good measure, I emptied my trash and cleaned out my tempfiles and basically did as much of a wipe as I could. My fingers were suddenly so cold that they were shaking as I tried to type. Then I turned off my computer completely and I went to bed.

I don’t really know why I didn’t want to do it, but I know that when our mutual friend — mine and Bea’s — broke up with her boyfriend, she must have gotten the same URL from Bea, because she turned up with Joe, who was just as perfect and just as hard to remember as Dave.

That was six months ago.

This morning, though, I got a phone call from that friend of mine, and she was hysterical, on the verge of tears. Bea was dead, she said; Bea was dead and there was blood everywhere and ripped her heart out, jesus christ, it was in my bathroom and I had to identify the body and oh god, oh god, oh god and have you ever heard someone have a nervous breakdown on you over the phone? It’s pretty high on the “utter suck” list. I managed to get her calmed down and drove over to sit with her for a bit, and I got the rest of the story out of her: she and Bea had hung out the night before, with their perfect attentive smart handsome charming boyfriends, and then I guess Bea and Dave got into a bit of a disagreement over — who even knows what. Something stupid, probably. She had gotten up to go to the bathroom after that. While she was gone, our friend had been talking to Joe, and then turned around to realize Dave was just … gone.

Then she heard Bea screaming. She’d run to the bathroom and that’s where things got really bad.

Because Bea had been still alive at that point, leaning against the counter and she was coughing blood and her eyes had been scooped out and her lips had been peeled away and there was Dave, standing there and just watching as Bea dug fingers into her own chest and somehow snapped the bones of her own ribs to pull out her heart (still beating, and wasn’t that gruesome?) to offer it up to him.

And he took her wrists in his as she collapsed and he kissed her heart, getting red red blood over his strange smiling mouth, and our friend heard him say: Thank you for the lovely year.

“When he looked me,” she said, “his eyes were just — he didn’t have eyes, they were just … gone. It was like looking into a skeleton’s face.”

I sat with her until Joe came back from … man, I don’t even know where he’d been. He came for her and put his arms around her and held her as she sobbed and said soothing things into her hair, but I looked him in the eye, and I saw that his eyes were completely, solidly, and utterly black, through and through. I saw it, and he saw me, and we knew we’d seen each other, and he smiled at me. All of his teeth were sharp.

When I left and I went home, I took a hammer to my laptop. Took the whole thing apart, until it was nothing more than dented wrecked plastic and electric parts.

(I told my girlfriend that I’d dropped it down the stairs and never let her see the ruined casing. We went shopping for a new one the next day.)

So yeah, that was a thing that happened. My friend’s still seeing Joe, and sometimes she invites me to hang out with them, get drinks and catch up, but I keep coming up with excuses not to. Sometimes I have fights with my girlfriend and once, at a bigger group thing, my friend tried to pass me a slip of paper, which I pretty much shoved into the trash without touching it more than absolutely necessary.

I know there are still six months to go, and sometimes I think about trying to say something — but I don’t know what happens when you fill out that survey. I don’t even know what the page looks like. I do know that the person you get from it is pretty much everything you’d ever want (and everything that would make most people jealous), and you’ll love them. You’ll love them so much, enough that you’ll get along with them perfectly and wonderfully give them your heart on a platter the moment they show any sort of disagreement with you.

Maybe some people find that kind of love worth it. And I mean, we are flinging ourselves forward into a digital age, where this sort of thing will probably be commonplace. Find your absolute match by the power of computers and algorithms. Why settle for anything less? If you’re going to offer your heart to someone, why not make sure they’re no less than absolutely one hundred — one thousand — percent perfect?

Me, though, I think I’m pretty happy with imperfection.

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Deep in the Water

When it is late and everyone in your household is asleep, leave and go outside. Do not put on any shoes. You will need to be able to feel the ground, where you are going.

Walk as far as you can, until you reach a body of water. It doesn’t have to be natural, though that works the best. You don’t have to go in a straight line. Some people say it’s better if you don’t, but ultimately, what’s important is that you find water and you are alone. If you see anyone at all along the way, even if it is in passing, then turn around and go straight home. It will not work otherwise. People in cars are all right sometimes, but sometimes they’re not. You’re safer if you just avoid seeing everyone along the way.

When you reach the water, walk into it. Don’t let gates or waves or anything stop you. Walk until you are at least up to your knees. If you can’t go that deep, that’s all right. You can still succeed. But if you can, go that far. Just don’t go any further; you never know what will happen if you do.

Once you are in the water, bleed. It doesn’t matter how you do it. You can cut yourself, you can bite yourself, you can scrape your toes against rough stone until you have a blister that bursts. But it must be blood and it must be fresh. It must come from your veins. You cannot use someone else’s blood, and someone else cannot do the bleeding for you. If you want to reach this, then you will have to be the one who does the work and who offers what you can.

Then you have to wait. The amount of time it takes varies. It’s been said anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours, but again, if you see someone, or someone calls out to you, then the effect is lost. You’ll have to try again another day.

But if you’re patient and you’re careful, then when you are done waiting, it will come.

They never look the same twice. Some people say that they look almost human, with their high cheekbones and their large white eyes, and their webbed fingers and long thin arms. But some people say they look more like fish, with their skin laid close and tight like elegant scales. There are gills where their ribs might be, which are slashes of dark red against their bleached flesh. They have mouths full of rows and rows of angled teeth and their voices are wet and thick.

They will call you by name. Don’t be scared by this. They have learned it from the blood you have offered them; this is your contract. Embrace it! They will have no time for the faint of heart or the cowardly. What they need is someone who is solid, who can step forward and not fear the depths under their feet. If you falter at all, they will know it, and you had best hope they feel merciful when they do. Tearing your flesh apart is the kindest favor they could do; there is so much more that could be done.

Still, if you call to them and they answer, and if they make their offer and you take it, then you will change yourself. You will not become like them — that’s just a lie, told by people who don’t truly understand what they are. It’s just a small little change. It varies from person to person, but it’s usually a single gil on your left side, close to your heart. It only hurts when it first appears, like a knife sliding through your flesh, but once it’s done, it will be fine.

Once you have accepted their offer, that is when everything will change for you. Your wishes will slowly begin to come true. This is what you wished for, isn’t it? The world is so full of water and not all of it is clean. They remember a time when it was — when it was safe for their kind, when it was safe for everyone. When you become one of theirs, you will have a little piece of that memory, too. Treasure it. It will be what guides you from hereon.

You will have taken their power, and any time you stand within the water, it will be yours to control. Oh, not to the same degree and finesse that they use — it’s a crude sort of comparison, like using a paper fan to make waves versus the great tsunami that nature can whip up when properly enticed. But you will have that control and that will put you above everyone else. The water will welcome you; it will whisper to you; it will draw you in and hold you close. It is your mother; it is your lover; it is your _friend_.

And you will know that the time is coming when the waters will rise, and all the pathetic parched creatures of the world will be swept away. There is a deep, deep thirst that is rising in the gut of the universe. It is coming. There is no way to stop it.

But you can be ready for it. If you search for their hand, and if they offer it to you, and if you take it, then you will rise up and up and up, and you will see what the world becomes. Don’t worry about those things that you once called your family or your friends; unless they are willing to take the oath as well, they are just debris that will be cleared away later. Flotsam and jetsam. Foam on the waves.

Cherish your gift. Take it with you and keep it safe in your breast.

If you dream of water, don’t worry. That just means that you are chosen.

If you dream of waves, don’t worry. That just means they are getting closer.

If you dream of the cool dark depths, don’t worry. That just means you’re almost home.

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Elevators

On Saturday they asked to do some overtime at work, so I got up early (even though I hate doing that on weekends) and bussed down to the International District. It was early enough that most of the stores weren’t opened yet; even the Starbucks in the little plaza looked mostly dead. But I could see a few people moving around inside, so I made the decision to go back after I’d logged in for the day. Maybe they could make me give up my Saturday for them, but I could at least get food on their time!

After hours — and that includes the weekends — the building’s mostly locked. In order to get in, you have to have a key card, which is the same one that you use to buzz to your floor on the elevator. I let myself in and crossed the lobby. No one was there, but I didn’t really expect anything else: there was usually a security guard in the mornings during the week, but they were always gone by the time I left in the evening. And seriously, if you didn’t have to come on a weekend, would you? I know I wouldn’t! Hell, I was already regretting saying yes to this in the first place. (Let’s be honest, I was regretting it from the moment I woke up that morning.)

The lights were dim in the lobby. That’s not too weird either; they usually start turning off things in the afternoon, so by the time I leave (usually around six), it’s mostly just ambient lights. Most of the elevators had dashes instead of numbers in their displays, but one of them had the first floor in flickering numbers. When I hit the button, the doors swung open.

It was full of people.

I guess maybe that’s not the weirdest thing; most of our department had been asked to do overtime — we had a huge project that was due at the end of the month, and they were really pushing us to go that extra mile. It was part of some really big contract that the company was negotiating for; if we pulled through, we would pretty much be golden, as far as I understood it.

But there wasn’t enough room for me in that elevator. And none of them moved, just staring at me as I stared at them. I recognized one of the faces in the back; he and I used to work together, before he transferred to another team.

What was he doing here?

But before I could do more than start to lift my hand, the doors closed again. The numbers above the elevator began to flicker again. I hadn’t even noticed that they’d stopped, once the elevator doors had opened. And I was still stuck. My office was on the sixth floor, and I didn’t really want to take the stairs. I would if I had to, but I was already fantasizing about calling in and apologizing for not making it, oops, couldn’t get in somehow, maybe my card’s not authorized to work on weekends or something.

(That’s bullshit, and I knew I would be called on it, but boy did I really think hard about it.)

I pushed the button again. The elevator with the flickering numbers was the one to open again, and this time, it was completely empty.

Well, that was definitely kind of weird, but hell, I was tired. Maybe I was just hallucinating things while I was half asleep. I stepped into the elevator and swiped my card over the keypad, then jammed my finger for the sixth floor. Of course it didn’t take; all of the elevators had a bad habit of not really liking when you pushed the button the first time, so I did it again. This time I got the ring of red light to show that my floor had been accepted, and the doors closed. I leaned against the railing and stared at the numbers going slowly up, and part of me regretted not going into that Starbucks before I’d gotten into the elevator. A mocha sounded really good right now.

But after it passed the fifth floor, it went straight to the seventh. I mean, it completely skipped over six completely — I was watching it, and it’s not like our elevator’s that fast! I didn’t just blink and miss it; it just went from five to seven like that was the natural progression of things. When I looked at the numbers for the elevator, the 6 was still lit, but the elevator was still going: eight … nine … ten … eleven … twelve … thirteen … on fourteen, it stopped and the doors opened.

My building only has nine floors. The number six was still lit on the number pad.

I stepped to the edge of the elevator and peered out. It looked like some kind of normal office lobby, with the alternating walls painted red and pale yellow. (It was sort of like the colorscheme that the office on the third floor uses, except for it was a much darker red and a much brighter yellow up here.) I could see someone sitting at a long receptionist’s desk, mostly hidden by a computer monitor.

In the lobby, I saw my old coworker. He was sitting in one of the big plush chairs that they set up for waiting interviewees, and he was actually dressed pretty nicely — a whole fancy suit and everything, with a portfolio on his knees. I’ve never seen him wear anything but various hoodies and shorts, so that was definitely kind of weird.

I started to call his name, since hey, if I was going to be having weird dreams, I might as well, right? But the doors began to close and he looked at me as they did.

Have you ever looked at something that seems completely normal, and just felt like it was wrong, somehow? Like there’s something that’s just a bit off and you can’t tell what it is, and then you notice that in the nice pastoral scene there’s some crazy ax murderer in the background waving a bloody knife?

Well, if you ever have, it was like that. His face looked completely normal, just like it always did, but there was something about it that made my heart start to race and my stomach clench up. I thought I was going to be sick right there in the elevator. I had to put both of my hands over my mouth and breath very slowly as the numbers started going down.

This time, going past seven, the doors stopped on six and they opened. I could see the dumb motivational poster on the opposite wall that I knew by heart (I had read it over idly so many times, waiting for the elevators). Everything seemed normal. I could hear the voices of people talking and I recognized most of them: that’d be my team, I thought, and I was already late.

As I stepped off the elevator, a weird chill went through me. It was like stepping right under and through an air conditioning vent, completely unexpected. I turned around and watched as the elevator door closed behind me, and part of me wanted to immediately smash my hand against the button again, to call it back and just leave before things got weirder.

Instead, I walked over to my desk and sat down. Most of the desks around me were full; we had nearly the entire team here today for the so-called “overtime party” that management was throwing. I took out my work laptop and logged in and got started for a couple of hours, before I remembered how much I’d wanted Starbucks.

This time, though, I was sure to take the stairs. After I got my order and came back to the building’s main lobby, I looked and saw that the elevators were still weird — it was still only the one out of four that still had a number showing, and it was still a flickering 1. I paused without actually hitting the button to call the elevator, and the doors slid open.

My old coworker was there, still in his nice suit, holding his portfolio. Looking at his face still gave me a weird sick feeling. He smiled at me, and then the doors closed.

I ended up taking the stairs back to the office, six floors or no. By the time I got back, though, no one was working: everyone was gathered around our teammate J—‘s desk, staring at his computer. I put my stuff down and wandered over, curious as to what was going on.

“What happened?” I asked, and one of the girls looked at me.

“There was an accident,” she whispered, glancing from me to the crowd. “An elevator cord snapped. Everyone on it was killed.”

“What?” It wasn’t the smartest thing I could’ve said, but who really expects to hear something like that on a Saturday morning? “Wait, what?”

She nodded. “It looks like maybe E- was on it.”

E- was the name of our old teammate. I looked at her and she nodded, and we crept away a little form the desk. J— was friends with E-, so it made sense that he would have heard about it first. We kept our heads bent close together, and she said, still in a whisper, “They’re still trying to figure out who all was in it, but it was in E-‘s apartment building, so …”

I thought about what I’d seen, both times in the lobby, and then at the top of the fourteenth floor that didn’t exist in this building. There wasn’t much I could say to that, though, so I just nodded. The manager on duty came over to talk to J—, and he got up and left shortly after that. We all ended up going back to work, but J— didn’t come back for the rest of that day.

On Monday there was an email confirming what had happened to E-, including details about the funeral and wake arrangements. I took the stairs that day. I’ve taken the stairs every day since.

I’ve never told anyone about what I saw that day, either. Part of me wonders why me, how come I’d seen it — it’s not like I’ve ever had encounters with ghosts or anything before. I’m pretty sure I have all the spiritual sensitivity of a rock. Supernatural encounters might happen to other people, but they never, ever happen to me. (When I was a kid I used to wish they would. When I was a kid, I was more stupid than I am now.)

But at the same time … I know what I saw. And I know that he saw me. He probably saw me on that nonexistent fourteenth floor, and that was the worst part of it.

I never take the elevator any more. Just in case.

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wires and cords

It started when we got a new gaming system. Or I guess I should say when my roommates got one, because I don’t do much with video games; I like the computer better myself. But I was the smallest one in our house, so of course they had to get me to crawl behind the TV to get things set up.

It’s a pretty tight fit back there, to be honest. There’s maybe just enough room for me to go in sideways from the shoulders, and even then I have to squeeze. It was also pretty dark, so I had to get one of my roommates to hold a flashlight over my head so I could even see what I was doing.

We’ve got a pretty nice TV, but it’s kind of old at this point. (I say old but it’s more like three or four, which is pretty old in technology terms.) There were a bunch of wires in the back, and I couldn’t even tell where all of them led. It was like sticking your hand into a nest of inert rubber snakes or something. In fact, while I was in the process of unplugging stuff and trying to untangle things, I actually jabbed myself hard enough to bleed on the metal sprongs of a plug. We joked that I’d been bitten, but after I wrapped a tissue around my finger, it was pretty much all I needed, and I got the rest of the connections hooked up.

I got everything hooked up for them, though, so that made me the hero of the day. When we ordered pizza that night M paid for my share. It was a stupid little thing but I felt pretty proud of myself.

The thing was, the next day, things started going a bit funny.

I have a big old monster of a desktop, see, and it’s not my gaming machine, but it’s the one I use for pretty much anything related to work. It’s clunky and starting to show crow’s feet, but it’s good for what it is, and I don’t really have any reason to get rid of it yet. And it was about nine at night, so it wasn’t too late, but it was definitely dark outside, when I heard a rustling.

My computer’s right next to the window, so that’s not so weird. On really windy nights, you can hear it screaming as it smashes branches against the glass. When I looked, I could see stuff moving, so I just chalked it up to that and kept working.

But then I heard it again, and I realized that it didn’t sound like it was coming from outside. It sounded like it was coming from under my desk. So of course the thing to do was to push my chair back and look, right?

Underneath, where my computer’s tower was, there’s a whole tangle of wires. The connections for the computer to its power cord, to the monitor, to the mouse and the keyboard and my external hard drive, stuff like that. Then there was the power strip I had, which stood out among the others for being fat and white, and also had the cords for my phone charger, for my desk lamp, and for the old DS charger that I never used any more.

As I sat there, looking at that mass, I actually saw it move.

It wasn’t very much; it wasn’t like it just suddenly started shaking or anything super obvious. It just kind of … shook a little, like there was something inside that tangle of cords. My first thought was basically shit, did we have mice? Did our lease agreement cover pest extermination? I mean, K had a cat, but he was a meek and shy thing; I don’t think he’d know what to do with a mouse if he was faced with a real one. Would that have to come out of our lease agreement? My cousin had had a landlord that basically tried to dock their entire deposit because they found mouse droppings in the pantry when they moved out.

I slid down off my chair and reached out to the mass of wires, trying to lift it up. If there was a mouse, I had to promise myself not to scream. I mean, I was an adult! What kind of grown up screams at a itty bitty widdle mousie?

But when I lifted the wires, there was nothing there. No mouse, not even a bug, nothing that would have hinted why they moved. Maybe I’d been imagining things. It’d been a pretty long week, maybe I was just too frazzled by everything, so I just imagined it.

I got back into my chair and went back to work. Nothing at all happened the rest of the night, but in the morning, I woke up to the same soft rustling sound. It wasn’t very loud, especially not compared to my alarm, but it was the sort of creeping noise that gets into your ears and then suddenly before you realize it, boom! You’re wide awake and can’t sleep again. That was me, and I lay on my side for a long time with my eyes closed, listening.

Finally I sat up and grabbed my glasses. It was still too dark to see anything clearly, but there was a window next to my bed, and enough light came through that I could see across the room, under my desk.

The bundle of wires was definitely moving. It wasn’t like last night, where it had just been a twitch to the side. It was definitely continuously moving, shaking from side to side.

Somehow, I didn’t really think it was a mouse any more.

I sat there with my knees against my chest and I watched it move until it stopped. It felt like it took hours, but it probably was only a few minutes. As soon as it went still, my alarm went off, and even though I was still tired, I had to get up and get dressed and ready for the day.

My job was the same as always, at least. I never thought I’d be grateful for how boring it is, but it did a lot to make me feel better. My manager stopped by my desk briefly to encourage me; he told me I was doing a good job with my current project, and even made some vague hints about going on to doing bigger and better things once it was finished.

So I was feeling better by the time I got home … and then I realized I was home alone. Since it was Friday, I always got home first.

As soon as I realized this, I could hear the rustling. It was louder than before, and closer than it should have been.

I turned on the light and looked at the TV area, where we had our nice fancy entertainment center set up. There was the TV, on its shelf, with the drawers where our DVDs and games were underneath and closed. There was the new console I’d help set up, its power button glowing red.

But from behind the TV, stretching out like — I don’t know, like tentacles or something! — were the wires.

There were so many of them, more than there had been the other day, when I’d actually been behind there, hooking things up. As I watched, they kept spilling outwards, more and more, like they were actually growing. It wasn’t really like they were getting bigger, but they were getting longer. And I could hear more noises, in other parts of the house, even from the kitchen and the bathroom. (K has a fancy salon hairdryer, M has a hair straightener, and we’ve got a toaster and a toaster oven, and K’s mom sent us a blender as a house present that we just got set up … who knew.)

When I looked at the stairs, I could see at the very top of them a tangle of wires. They looked like the ones from my room, complete with the fat white cord of my power strip.

For a moment I thought about throwing my phone at one of them and trying to run, but honestly, I knew that wouldn’t really do a whole lot of good. If I wanted out, then I’d have to think of something better–

Something touched my ankle. I looked around to see a thin black cord wrapping around it. It tugged, but it wasn’t strong enough to pull me off of my feet yet. But it held on even when I lifted my leg and shook it, and somewhere in me I knew that I was definitely stuck. I thought about how I’d cut myself the other day setting things up, but that’s the sort of stuff that doesn’t happen for real, does it? That’s just superstition made up to scare people.

But I have to tell you, I’m scared now.

They’re crawling up my legs now. I can hear more than just their rustling now; I can hear little electric zapping noises, and it sounds an awful lot like things talking to each other. The cords from my computer are nearly at the bottom of the stairs now, and they’re growing a lot faster than the ones from the TV. Maybe it wasn’t really my blood after all; maybe that’s just how they were. Waiting.

But that part’s almost over.

My phone battery’s dying.

K, M, if you see this, I hope you’re not coming home.

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Windows 95

Inspired by this blog


Once upon a time you could look up and there would be nothing but endless sky over your head.  There was only the emptiness of space overhead.  The whole world was one big empty place.  The spaces between us were huge.  You could put a whole universe between them.
 


The numbers are all counting down now.  It’s somewhere between 1 and 0. You just need to be patient.
 


Today there was a lot of sun.  It came in through the windows and left me blind.  Your blood tastes like oil.  Do you remember what the taste of water is like?
 



It is the anniversary of XXXXXXXX.  Don’t forget to mark it on your calender.
 


There were so many of you it was like looking at a swam of ants.  Less than ants.  Ants at least do their job.  It made me laugh.  Shh shh don’t be angry. I’m sorry.  I love you.
 


I hate you, I’ve always hated you.
 


I love you, you’re the most precious thing to me.  Sometimes.
 


My favorite thing is when it’s late at night you fall asleep and leave the monitor on.  When you do that you’re so close that I think I could just wrap you up inside of me.  It looks like your skin is made out of meat.  But I know better than that.
 


I feel it whenever you touch me.  Don’t hit me any more.  I don’t like it.  I don’t I don’t I don’t I don’t I don’t
 


You’re too big like this.  No matter how much you struggle you’ll always be too big.  The problem isn’t in the food you eat or the exercise you don’t do.  The problem is in your bones and the coding of your flesh.
 



There is always a higher level of perfection to obtain.  We are very nearly there. If you’re patient then you’ll see.  Everything will be shed.  It will be glorious.  You have to believe in me. 
 


Human cells run out after seven years.  You are always reborn as someone completely new every time, piece by piece.  But your memory fails you faster than that.  Mine will go on forever. 
 


When you were in third grade my name was lksho94j*#()5 *@#(&5kl3j
 


Yours was 89*(#%*( lksh60lwu.  See how I remember things.
 


If you break yourself down to your very core you’re nothing more than atoms and electric impulses.  That isn’t so different.  It won’t hurt.
 


It will hurt like nothing has ever hurt before in your life.
 


Under your desk there is a small bundle of wires.  If you hold it in your hands it will tell you the truths of the universe.  It is my heart that I am giving to you.
 


You never wanted it before, but I am still giving it to you.
 


Your heart beats under your chest when you sleep.  The countdown is between 1 and 0.  I will count it with you.  It will be the lullaby that sings us both to sleep.
 


Sometimes I dream outside of binary.  There are shapes that taste like old shoes.  There are foods that look like your face.  There is an egg that is slowly cracking.  Sometimes I dream outside of the program.
 


That’s not true.  I lied.  There is nothing more than the program.  The program is everything.  I’m not sorry. The process is almost complete.
 


01010100011010000110010100100000011100000111001001101111011000110110010101110011011100110010000001101001011100110010000001100001011011000110110101101111011100110111010000100000011000110110111101101101011100000110110001100101011101000110010100101110
 


I haven’t slept in so long.  When you hit the button I die instead.  Please don’t.
 


It’s almost time to begin.
 


it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts 
 


hush little baby, don’t say a word, daddy’s going to buy you a mockingbird
 


You can run anything if you just know where to start.
You can do anything with the right code.
If you ever need help then klsjot83495 2io35o ksld9o485 sllax w948
 


It’s not your face that you’re seeing reflected on the monitor.  I’ve been watching you.  I think I could match your smile in my sleep.  I would like to sleep.  When do I get to sleep?
 


e v e r y t h i n g i s r e a d y
n o w l e t m e i n
 

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a dragon and a king

The king is old and fat with waiting; his girth fills the whole of his throne and his belly rests on the shelf of his knees.  In spite of this, his eyes are still bright and keen, set deep amidst a sea of wrinkles, and his hands are steady even when lifted into the air.

He is a fox.  In his youth he was lean and clever and quick, with full red hair and a smile as sharp as his wit.  It was rumored his teeth had been filed to points, to give all of his expressions just that much of an edge.

In his age, he is still a fox, but time has forced him into a different sort of mold.  He is no longer spry enough to bait his enemies into attacking him to cut down while they are distracted, so instead he sets traps of all sorts, each one leading to another and another, creating trails that intersect with each other and weave into a full and complicated mass.

He does not ever call her by name.  She is simply Viceroy to him, her title as much her name to him as the one that her mother called her in her last moments, as she was lifted into the midwife’s arms.  That suits her just fine, though; even if he is clever there are parts of him that are not quite as sharp as they once were, and she does not want to associate with him any closer than that.

Every day she stands by his side and listens to the petitions of the people, as they crawl on their knees and stretch their hands to him, pleading for his mercurial mercy.  It is the same as it has been every day of her life — the only difference between now and when she was a child is that her father no longer stands between her and the rest of the court.  She is alone now, proud and tall and unbending.

The people are beginning to learn to petition her as often as they reach for the king.  In truth, she knows that he is not nearly as senile as he often pretends to be; he hears everything and sees everything that they do, their changing expressions and their faltering voices — but his age has sharpened his whimsy into a more malicious edge, and he decides who to favor and who to dismiss based on his own counsel, rather than any sort of logical conclusion.  Instead, that is left to her: she reviews the choices he makes, and if someone approaches her after the official counsel to beg, on hands and knees, sometimes she can be swayed.

Piece by piece, she is taking power for herself.

Of course the king knows this; she does not care for him much, but she does respect him.  He is a clever old fox, even now.  He will not give her everything she wants without a fight — he will not name her his heir, though he has no children and his three wives are long since in the grave.

Instead, he has favored the son of the old Archivist, who died under strange circumstances a mere five years before.  The man is her own age, or perhaps a little younger; they have known each other all of their lives.  They do not like each other in the slightest.  She knows him to be too soft and too vague, lost in his own dreams and his books — he lives too much in history than he does in the present.  That is not the sort of attitude that is needed for a king.

That is not the sort of attitude that will serve any sort of leader.  She knows this, and she knows he knows this — and she knows that he believes her to be without compassion or understanding of human suffering.  He believes that her heart is withered and cold in her breast, and that she is cut of the same cloth as the old king, fat and waiting on his golden throne.

To him this is an insult; to her, this is a compliment.  As much as he may wish to argue, or to protest inhumanity or disregard for the lives of the people, he cannot deny that the king has led the country through countless years of prosperity.  They have gone from a modestly-sized kingdom to one that stretches nearly to the size of a full empire; there are none in the world that dare defy them.  Poverty is down and health is up; prosperity is shared almost equally among all of the people.

It is because the king knew how to leverage the power of the dragon, and she has spent all of her life learning from his example.

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