• featured,  fiction,  short stories

    The Wolf Made Differently

    Thyra didn’t like how kneading dough hurt her hands, but Mother wouldn’t let her stop. “Dig in deeper and work through the ache,” said Mother. “That’s what it feels like when muscles grow strong.”

    Thyra didn’t especially want to grow strong–at least not back then. “Strong” was the word everyone had used for the men when they left on a viking. “Strong” meant those tall men, with those wide shoulders, carrying straps of leather over their shoulders as they talked too loudly on the way to the docks, and “strong” meant the occasional lash-out of a foot when the thrall dropped a crate that was meant to reach the longship, and “strong” also meant the stench that followed those big burly men when they returned victorious and fewer after some months.

    “We all need to be strong,” said Mother with the muscles around her eyes drawn tight as she kneaded her own dough harder. “We don’t get to decide we don’t want to be strong.”

    Want, Thyra understood, was unimportant.


    Ulfhild was one of the daughters at the farm down the hill. Her family was poor enough that Mother didn’t want Thyra to make friends with Ulfhild, mostly on account of The Risk, something that Mother said with an air of grownup mystery. The Risk was something that had happened to Byggsen Farm before Thyra was born. The Risk was the reason that Mother was especially kind to her thralls, even pitying, and would let them sleep on the floor in front of her fire when nights were cold.

    “Ulfhild’s farm is a few dead goats away from this,” said Mother, bobbing her head toward her thralls.

    Thyra’s impression of the people who worked the fields was negative. They weren’t strong, but they were smelly, and certainly worth pitying. (“Odin’s least favorite,” Mother once said in Thyra’s earshot, and Thyra had understood that as well as she had understood anything else.)

    Ulfhild was subject to The Risk, and it had something to do with thralls, but Thyra couldn’t imagine Ulfhild having anything in common with thralls besides two arms and two legs and a head with a face on it. Ulfhild had thick hair the same color of red as the cinnabar on a shield. It grew in loops that Thyra could wrap around her fingers. Ulfhild hated it, for some reason, just as she hated the dresses she was expected to wear. She complained a lot about the same things Thyra found most delightful in life.

    “Working in the garden!” Ulfhild would complain, punching at a haystack until her face got red. “Livestock husbandry!”

    “Would you prefer to go on a viking, then?” asked Thyra with a wrinkled nose.

    “Maybe I would,” said Ulfhild.

    Oh, Ulfhild was wild, and entirely unladylike, unlike any of the other daughters of the karls. Even the blacksmith’s daughter had never been known to rip off her dress and go tearing naked across the village, screaming, just to escape her nagging mother. When someone finally caught Ulfhild under his arm, she was kicking the entire way back, and laughing, and screaming, and biting like a complete wild animal.

    “Strong boy you have there,” said the man, tossing Ulfhild at her mother’s feet.

    The mother had been embarrassed, Ulfhild had been abruptly quiet, and Thyra (watching from a textile shop nearby with her hands in her mouth to stop laughing) found herself desperately smitten with Ulfhild for being such a nuisance.


    One night Ulfhild appeared in Thyra’s bedroom when the moon was big and the fjord was bright because nights never got very dark when it was so warm. Ulfhild’s tanned-and-freckled face glowed. She had chopped all that pretty cinnabar hair off. She was crouching over Thyra’s bed, and she said, “I wanted to tell you, I’ll come back, and we’ll get married.”

    Thyra thought it must have been a dream. None of this made sense. Why would Ulfhild come back, when she was already there? She was no more than an hour’s giggling, arm-pumping, foot-flying run away from Thyra’s home at any given moment. And how in the world could they get married? They were both girls. They had a duty to their families to marry well, and marry men.

    Thyra liked the idea of marrying Ulfhild, in her dream, and she said, “Come back soon.”

    It wasn’t the first time that Ulfhild curled up in bed next to Thyra. They used to do that all the time when they were small, when their mothers were still friends, and Thyra remembered well the feeling of cheek against cheek and mingling breath as they faded into sleep. But Ulfhild’s breathing was choppy and wet like she was crying a little bit. Ulfhild never cried. It was definitely a dream.


    Thyra awoke to a single coil of cinnabar hair in her bed. She put it into a jewelry box of yew and ash, locked it, and hung the key around her waist.


    Ellingboe Farm was empty after that night. Mother told Thyra, “You’re old enough now, you should know. Ulfhild’s father couldn’t repay his debts and he was beaten to death in his paddock. The jarl came overnight. The rest of the family was taken into custody to pay off his debt.” And now the jarl had more thralls. That had always been The Risk.

    Although Mother didn’t say Ulfhild escaped the arrest, some of the men had left on a viking just that morning, off to join another raiding party in islands to the south, and Thyra remembered her dream. She somehow knew Ulfhild had gone with the men, because Ulfhild was strong.

    “You have to be strong too, Thyra. We all do,” said Mother.


    Thyra mastered kitchen and garden at her mother’s side, but only when winter came again did Mother decide Thyra needed to manage the thralls. “Keeping the thralls to work our land is the difference between us and them,” said Mother.

    “Us and who?” asked Thyra.

    “Them,” said Mother. Byggsen Farm and Ellingboe Farm, probably, although Mother never said it. She hadn’t even told Thyra when Father laid claim to both lands and extended their own farm to take the entire hillside overlooking the fjord, contentedly filling spaces vacated by tragedy.

    Managing the thralls really meant managing the one given the most responsibility, who they called Foot. Foot used to be a farmer and the other thralls respected them. Mother took Thyra every time she gave instructions to Foot, and Mother lent Foot keys to accomplish various tasks around the farm, and Thyra learned how to speak with disdainful authority and point fingers and to pretend the smells didn’t trouble her. It unsettled Thyra to look at the thralls, neither boys nor girls, but simply Odin’s least favorite people, defined only by how much they deserved their fate.

    Also, Father started showing interest in Thyra at this time. “You have gotten very tall,” he said, “and your hair is very long. You look a great deal like your mother at this age.” This Age was a special concept, much like The Risk. “The jarl wants to see you. Put on your prettiest dress, would you?”


    Of course Thyra had been to the jarl’s longhouse a few times; many holy tides brought them to Halfdan’s bonfire for celebration or mourning. But Thyra had always been a shadow of Mother. At Father’s side, under the scrutiny of Halfdan, Thyra had become something else.

    Thyra was presented in her prettiest dress, wearing some of Mother’s jewelry, and Thyra’s hair was braided in two long lines down her front.

    The jarl looked over Thyra. He said, “Thirteen summers already?”

    Father said, “Mother has loved her dearly and would keep her forever, if she could. Thyra has been a pleasure for our family.”

    But now it was Thyra’s duty to be a pleasure to the jarl’s family. A contract was drawn, arranging for Thyra to marry the jarl’s younger brother, Skarde. “Younger” only meant that he was a man of some fewer moons; he was still a very bearded and very scarred fellow with a large brewery and the need for a wife to run it.

    “I’m to marry?” Thyra asked of her mother later. She hadn’t entirely understood the contract process. Father had never explained it, and he was too happy on the journey home to answer questions.

    “You’ll make a good wife,” said Mother. “You know everything you need to run Skarde’s household. He is rich. He is kind.”

    Thyra despaired. There was a lock of cinnabar hair in her jewelry box which promised Thyra would marry someone else–though Ulfhild had never returned from her viking.


    Perhaps Ulfhild hadn’t gone on the viking. Perhaps she was with the jarl’s thralls after all.

    Thyra watched some of them working in the fields, backs hunched, clothing spare, heads lowered. She couldn’t imagine Ulfhild among them. Ulfhild wasn’t like them at all. Although Ulfhild wasn’t a boy or a girl either, much like the thralls. Ulfhild was simply Ulfhild. Thralls were simply thralls.


    If Ulfhild hadn’t come back for Thyra, it was because Ulfhild was dead.

    The thought killed whatever part of Thyra felt tempted to be a nuisance and refuse the marriage.


    Skalde and Thyra formally met and married shortly thereafter. Thyra received the dowry and mundr from her proud, drunken father. “Those are for you,” Father insisted. “Hide them from Skalde, if he seems the type to take them away. Tell me if he is terrible to you as soon as you can. You are pretty. We can find you a kinder husband if this one is terrible.”

    Thyra did think Skalde was terrible, though he didn’t hit her, or scream, like she’d seen other men do sometimes. He was very quiet for the most part. He spent a lot of time after midday thinking and smoking and coughing then smoking and thinking some more. She asked once what he was thinking about, and he wouldn’t tell her.

    That wasn’t terrible, nor was it terrible to manage his household. Thyra’s hands didn’t hurt when she kneaded dough anymore. She was strong from shoulders to finger joints. She had grown powerful hips getting down to collect milk for Mother, and she used that strength to climb the many stairs and terraces of Skalde’s brewery–Thyra’s brewery–where most of her work involved the thralls on the farm.

    The thralls brought out the worst of Skalde. He went from pensive to terrible when they were around. Nothing the thralls did could please him, though the thralls were many, and worked hard as any. He beat them often. The inhuman yelping noises made it difficult for Thyra to rest.

    Beating the thralls always made Skalde want to come to Thyra for comfort, and that was terrible too. He smelled strongly of sweat. His body was heavy over hers. It hurt when he pushed himself into her, and he left her bed filthy.


    Mother spoke to Thyra differently once both of them had belts filled with keys to their respective households. She no longer said things like, “You’re old enough to know.” That was more than evident. Especially because Thyra was growing a shapelier figure, breasts and long legs and all, truly womanly.

    With this dramatic coming of age, information was conferred among peers instead. Simply, plainly, Mother said, “Your husband hates the thralls because they used to be Vinlings. The Vinlings killed his parents. Then these thralls bred the disease that killed his last wife in childbirth.”

    For these reasons and more, Mother explained, the thralls were meant to be treated the way Skalde treated them, no matter how it startled Thyra.

    “They’re thralls, after all. It’s not a terrible thing to do,” Mother said.

    Thus Skalde was not terrible, and Thyra’s parents saw no reason to divorce when things were going so marvelously, and Thyra was still married when Ulfhild finally returned.


    Several raiding parties returned at once and it was a time of great celebration. It brought everyone in the village and surrounding hills to the harbor, where they received many strong warriors, many bags of crates of supplies raided from enemies, and a few new thralls. The leader of the expedition gifted these thralls to Jarl Halfdan. The jarl was so delighted, he announced a feast to take the entire night.

    Among the cheery crowds, standing at her husband’s side, Thyra spotted a familiar face and recognition struck instantly.

    Ulfhild was among the returned men. She looked like a short man with small hands, and that was the only distinction. Matted with dirt and pitch, her hair was the color of charcoal beside a few bright-orange hairs stuck under her chin by sweat. Her cheeks had gotten thin. Her eyes had gotten shadowed. But it was Ulfhild, and Ulfhild recognized Thyra too, and they looked at each other for a long time across the bonfire.

    Thyra’s soul soared to see Ulfhild, beautiful Ulfhild, dirty and freed.

    She wondered what Ulfhild saw differently in Thyra. Did she notice Thyra had become a woman? That she was married, and buxom, and wealthier than ever? Was Ulfhild angry? Was she proud?

    Across the bonfire, Ulfhild raised her pint in acknowledgment of Thyra. Skalde believed the gesture for him. He returned it. Thyra’s heart fluttered like a captive bird.


    Ulfhild had been fighting Vinlings and she didn’t want to talk about it. “The Vikings see me as one of them,” she said gruffly, indicating the other raiders. Skalde was hosting some of the raiders at their house. This necessitated that Thyra tend them with food and drink, but Thyra had stolen away from the kitchen thralls to speak with Ulfhild behind the barn. “I acted like one of them, and I became one of them, and I don’t want to talk about it.”

    “They think you’re a man?” asked Thyra.

    “They will,” said Ulfhild stubbornly.

    There were other girls among the fighters, all like Ulfhild. Strong enough to survive a harsh journey by longship. Ferocious enough to put the torch to Vinling houses. Willing to swing an axe blade at Vinling throats. And when Ulfhild was doing these things, she was as good as a man.

    “There’s no telling the difference between us when we fight,” said Ulfhild. “Nobody cares what I am if I can fight. And I can. I’m good at it, Thyra.” She said it like it haunted her, even when she promised she would always fight to keep this privilege.

    Ulfhild didn’t belong back in a village of farms and shops and houses run by women–proper women, like Thyra, married shortly before the start of her catamenial phase to usher her into womanhood, wearing dresses, bearing keys, and feeding guests.

    “There is talk of a trader who wants protection through Vinling lands, and I will go with him,” said Ulfhild. “He is hiring boys like me.”

    Thyra cupped her old friend’s cheek in her hand and said, “You promised to marry me.”

    Ulfhild said, “You didn’t wait.”

    “My heart waited,” said Thyra, and they kissed.


    The trader didn’t leave for a few weeks. Thyra stole time away from her duties to be with Ulfhild. Ulfhild slipped into her bedroom at night, like when they were children. Whenever Ulfhild appeared, she was dressed like a beardless young man, hiding her frustratingly delicate features under the furtive brim of a cap, more afraid to be seen as a woman of marrying age than as a man visiting a married lady too often.

    Ulfhild’s body had changed from small but lanky into square with muscle, scarred from battle. She touched Thyra too harshly sometimes, but never as harshly as Skalde. Thyra loved that their kisses didn’t burn from a beard. She wished she could have remained curled in bed with Ulfhild forever.


    One full moon after Ulfhild left again, Thyra realized she was pregnant with child. It had to be Skalde’s. He was the only one who could perform the “husband’s duty,” as Mother used to say, in just the way that made a woman capable of bearing an infant. But Thyra imagined that it was Ulfhild’s child.


    Thyra gave birth to two of Ulfhild’s children before Ulfhild returned again.


    The Vinlings were restless; Jarl Halfdan called up levies for battle. Skalde was going to command one of the longships and its company of warriors himself. “A Vinling raid struck the village to the north, and we’ll be next if we don’t send them back to their miserable pit,” said Skalde.

    Thyra prepared him for travel in all the ways that her duty demanded. She had learned to leave most work to the thralls when she was pregnant; she had found a new Foot of her own to position as their leader. Thus Thyra only needed summon supplies to be stocked in the vessel that Skalde had built, and Thyra offered Skalde tender womanly comforts in his bed the nights before he departed.

    Calling the levies had also brought in others looking for coin, and Ulfhild returned with a group of mercenaries. She had gone from working for one trader to working for another, and another, and another, until reputation sent her to work for an allied jarl, who rewarded Ulfhild handsomely for the bravery of her axe. Ulfhild was becoming wealthy in her own way. She had finer armor, weapons of her own, and arms strong enough to carry Thyra behind the barn to kiss her forcefully.

    “I will be on Skalde’s ship,” said Ulfhild.

    “Then you will be with him when metal strikes metal,” said Thyra.

    They only called her Ulf now. Ulf, the wolf, a fearsome fighter despite her slightness of form, and she had become harder while Thyra became softer. Ulf worshiped Thyra’s hanging belly and drooping breasts. Ulf inhaled the oils Thyra put behind her ears, just so that Ulf could smell them.

    Ulf got the last kiss from Thyra before the longship set out. Thyra waved to them from the harbor, and Skalde thought the gesture was for him, so he returned it.

    Already, Thyra was pregnant with Ulf’s third child.


    It was luck that they brought Skalde’s body back when he died. Most bodies couldn’t come home. Thyra looked over it with her children to one side, her mother to the other side, and she felt the certainty of Skalde’s death sink into her bones.

    “The Vinlings are angry,” one warrior told the jarl. “They fight with the rage of ghosts.”

    So when they buried Skalde at sea, Thyra offered a pair of the Vinling thralls to go with him as an apology. The same Vinling monsters who had taken Skalde’s parents took Skalde too. It was wrong by everything that Thyra had been taught. The thralls deserved it.

    She poured drink down their throats until the two of them could no longer stand upright. Her mother dressed and anointed them. The thralls were seated to either side of Skalde, pushed out to sea, and set on fire from the shore with arrows. The thralls screamed when they burned. The screams were even worse than when Skalde used to beat them. One of Thyra’s children started crying, but she silenced him with a hand on his shoulder and a few whispered words. “Thralls are Odin’s least favorite. This is how it’s supposed to be.”


    Thyra continued to manage the brewery, now her own. She still had the jarl’s support. She still had a child in her womb. She had the knowledge and power that she did not need to marry again, and when Halfdan suggested that Thyra wed another of his brothers, Thyra had the authority to refuse.

    She was unmarried when Ulf returned from his viking regarded as a man. There was no doubt in those who followed him. He had proven himself a fierce warrior by killing a Vinling jarl. He was dripping with Vinling jewels, which he delivered to Thyra, holding them up in his hands, a glittering mountain.

    “I came back,” said Ulf, his scarred features still delicate and rimmed by cinnabar curls. Somehow he had managed to grow a few hairs off his chin. He was old enough he should have had a full beard, but even those few hairs were a miracle of truth upon Ulf’s face, and Thyra fell upon him with delight to pet Ulf’s beard and kiss Ulf’s lips and know the comforting home of Ulf’s hands.


    They married at last. Nobody talked about how Ulf had been born, or what had become of his family, or the name they used to call him. He was simply Ulf. A fearless conquering warrior with wealth made off the hides of his enemies. He had put three babies into Thyra’s belly. He was the man of their home.

    Very seldom did they sleep in their separate rooms.


    Thyra thought all of this was just right.

    She had her man, her house, her wealth. She thought that she deserved it.


    Ulf was unrestful. He was often quiet but unhappy in the daymark after midday, smoking his pipe and thinking hard, staring out at the fields. He didn’t get up to beat the thralls the way Skalde did. Instead, he stared in the direction of the jarl’s house. “We have been invited to spend Midsummer with them,” said Ulf gravely.

    Thyra and Ulf alike had many duties to fulfill in this, divided among woman and man, and both were capable of doing their duties. Thyra found joy in the preparations of supplies to take to the jarl. Ulf seemed unhappy.

    He remained unhappy as they paid homage to Halfdan, who greeted them warmly. “Shield-maiden become brother,” said Halfdan fondly in greeting to Ulf. Halfdan embraced Ulf as he would have embraced Skalde. They had battled together against Vinlings. They were family.

    At the jarl’s home, Ulf stood outside, watching the thralls work and smoking his pipe and looking troubled.

    “Come to bed with me,” said Thyra, embracing him from behind, her cheek pressed to his back.

    “Did you know I felled Skalde?” asked Ulf, facing into the darkness. “He would have survived his battle-wound, but I finished him.”

    Thyra hadn’t known that, but that was what she expected, and she was happy for it. “His death was meant to happen as such,” said Thyra with the peaceful, mysterious calm that Mother had always said such things.

    Ulf said, “My brothers and mother died in these fields as nameless thralls alongside Vinlings because they were poor. How could those have been their preordained deaths? How is our victory intended, but theirs not?”

    “That’s the way of life,” said Thyra. She squeezed her eyes shut. They pricked and burned with tears.

    “Our deaths are destiny, but our fates belong to us. Our fates are dark. We aren’t meant for success.”

    “You’re frightening me.”

    Ulf apologized. He carried his pregnant wife to bed, as she had asked him. He made love to her the way only warriors could. He was gentle as his muscles were strong. It was an honor for Thyra to feast herself between his legs, servicing him with pleasure as she used to with her head under Ulf’s skirts in the fields.

    It didn’t bring him peace. They clutched one another in love and slept drunk under the midnight sun.


    The Vinling raiders came behind a wave of fog, when none of the look-outs knew they were coming. They brought allies and mercenaries. They brought vengeance with them. Generations of rage borne upon longships. Armed with gifts from the Dreggsen clan, who hated Halfdan.

    Thyra awoke alone to screaming and smoke. She bolted outside. The eldest of her children was dead upon the stairs, a spear through his chest, and her screams joined others.

    She raced in search of her other child, but could not find her.

    Instead, Thyra found Ulf outside, handing small axes to thralls.

    “What are you doing?” asked Thyra.

    The thralls fled with their weapons, going for the hills, and Ulf said, “I had to free the ones the Vinlings would kill.”

    “They killed our son!”

    Oh, and how Ulf was filled with rage at this. He no longer looked so small and hard when he shifted into the mindset of battle. He became a wolf unlike the other wolves.

    He took his axe and he said, “Our deaths are predetermined, Thyra.” He kissed her again. A last time. Then he gave Thyra a knife.

    Vinlings fell swarmed the jarl’s lands. The village burned on the coast, blackening the sky, and it turned the invaders into faceless shadows as inhuman as any thrall.

    The wolf devoured them.

    Ulf howled and roared and swung, cutting through his enemies to create a path safe for Thyra. But he was only one man. He was destined to kill two Vinlings–four of them–six Vinlings and a Dreggsen–and it was much more than any other solitary warrior could have hoped–

    But the jarl’s longhouse burned and too many warriors were still too drunk to pick up their blades before they died.

    Like his son, Ulf took a spear through his heart.

    He struck his knees with the spear wedged halfway through his chest, and he looked to the sky, and he howled one last time before he died.


    Ulf died along with Halfden and his family. Most from the other visiting houses died too.

    Thyra wasn’t killed.

    Strong hands beat the terror out of her heart and the fight out of her limbs. She was dragged past Ulf’s body, blankly gazing at the sky from the mud, and Thyra felt herself become all-empty. She was reunited with her daughter in an enemy longship. Both of them were stripped of their jewels, keys, and cloaks. “They don’t need them,” said some strong man standing overhead. “And my wife will love these jewels.”

    Piece by piece, womanhood was taken from Thyra and her daughter.

    They sailed to the Vinlings on the ship with three others from the village and twenty happy warriors.

    The village of their home stayed behind them.

    Thyra tried to tell her daughter, “We will fight, sweet girl,” but she was kicked into silence. They weren’t allowed to speak as they willed, any more than they were allowed to wear the adornments of womanhood. Thralls were not permitted those sorts of things.


    Jarl Ødger and his wife Yrsa held a great feast when the first of their army returned victorious. “A great day!” Ødger said joyously, holding his wife in his arms.

    “Revenge against those cursed Haggenlings,” agreed Yrsa.

    Ødger felt himself in a generous mood, surveying the great wealth delivered in his honor. They had brought pieces of Halfdan’s longhouse. They had brought thralls from among his people, who wept on the ground the way most thralls did, at first. And they had brought every scrap of jewelry that they could find.

    “None survived to stop us,” said a warrior proudly.

    Yrsa and her daughter Revna received the bulk of the jewelry as a gift. Revna received Thyra’s jewelry box, which was carved with an elaborate wolf on the lid, and contained an elaborate lock that must have been opened by one of many keys included with it.

    Revna had only just found the key to open the jewelry box when Yrsa came to get her.

    “You’re old enough now, you should learn to handle the thralls,” said Yrsa. “You should see how they are acclimated to service here.”

    “I’m coming, Mother,” said Revna. She tried on one of Thyrsa’s necklaces and liked it. Underneath the large stone, she found a curl of cinnabar hair tucked away, hidden like a secret. Revna paid barely any attention to it. She slapped the box shut and followed Mother onward for their womanly duties.

  • A figure standing silhouetted by the light at the end of an underground tunnel.
    featured,  fiction,  short stories

    The Bunker After the End

    I thought I was alone, after the end. Then I found the bunker. Then I realized there had always been people inside. And they were hiding from me.

    The few who didn’t try to run away, screaming, donned full HazMat suits before approaching me. I was sobbing by the time they encircled my crouched body in a creaking mass of canvas suits and sheer plastic face protectors.

    “I’ve looked for you so long,” I wept. “I have been so lonely! Why won’t anyone touch me? I haven’t been touched since I was a child!”

    “You’re sick,” insisted a man in the suit.

    I felt wonderful, and I had always felt wonderful, my body functional as any toad swimming downriver, or the birds flapping in the sky, or the other companions I had held dear in my excruciating solitude.

    There was nothing but abyssal loneliness in the concrete box where they shoved me.

    “What are we going to do with her?” asked a woman outside my door.

    “We have to kill her,” said the man. “She came to find us. There’s no more time.”

    “Kill me?” I asked, banging on the inside of the door. “Kill me?”

    I sobbed that my weakness had sent me to this bunker, into the arms of humans; I sobbed that I had not simply been satisfied in my freedom of the outside world above. Instead of cherishing the grass under my bare feet, I had wondered what it would be like to hold hands with another girl. And now this was my reward for wanting people. This bleak room, these bleak words, my bleak heart.


    The woman let me out of the cell. “Lisa,” she said. “I’m Lisa.” I didn’t have a name because I’d never needed one. I was simply me.

    Lisa felt bad for me. Against everything that the other survivors recommended, she wanted to take me to her room, and feed me, and clothe me, and treat me like any neighbor in their little bunker.

    “You’re so small,” she said. “There’s nothing about you that might threaten us, no matter what they say!”

    She had never lived in a place with grass or sunlight or toads. She lived in a closet with a mattress, which she was eager to let me rest upon, and a few dirty scraps of cotton that formed her wardrobe. Lisa embraced me with her generosity. I was so pathetic that I loved her for it.

    Until the others found my cell empty.

    Until the others came running to Lisa’s room, so angry with her that they shoved her – threw her – and her head bounced off a shelf and the life went out of her eyes instantly.

    “Kill the outsider!” shouted a man.

    They chased me down the hall of their bunker with furious hands groping at my back, pipes swinging at my head. Finally one struck me. I fell to the ground and blood poured out of my face.

    “Kill her!” said another. “She’s dangerous!”

    The wolves had stolen my food while I was sleeping. The storms had drenched me when it was too cold to be wet. The bees had stung me when I got too near their hive. But they had only hurt me out of the nature of their existence, and there was no comparison to the rain of blows they smashed upon me.

    In my anger, I did what the wolves did, and I bit someone’s hand. The copper taste of blood filled my mouth.

    “Dammit!” The man jerked back and shook the blood off onto the floor in little drops.

    “She got him! Kill him!”

    “Get them both!”

    “What?” asked the man, turning wide eyes upon his friends as they turned their pipes and fists upon him.

    He didn’t let them kill him easily.

    He was more of a fighter than I was. He drew more blood. And each time he drew blood, the vitriol spread, the violence spread, and the men turned upon each other to fight and bite and tear.

    One of the doctors fell near me, dying with his face halfway crushed. He had enough consciousness to tell me, “You brought the virus from outside, inside. You brought the violence with you.”

    “It was always with you,” I spat back as he died.

    The killing spread and men fell. The injured ones went on to injure others. They ran into the other rooms to fight, and the infection spread further.

    I didn’t wait to watch it. I just picked up what was left of my bloody, aching body and I ran outside, to the grass, to the trees, to the forest, to an unforgiving sky with a blazing sun that never meant to hurt me.

  • existential screaming,  featured,  slice of life,  the worst timeline

    The World is Outside

    Days after it begins, I find myself missing Disneyland. I sit in a chair in front of my television, longer in diagonal than it is tall, and I don a headset. It is a heavy thing that covers my eyes and bands my head. I adjust its fit with dials until a television floats in front of me in the void, clear as though I sat in an empty cinema. I haven’t been to a cinema in a while. I’m not sure if I’ll ever go again.

    Speakers ring my room, seven-dot-one of them, and when I select a video on my console, sound engulfs me from all of them. Within the headset, the TV has yielded to a lifelike environment. A 360 video where I can turn my head and the sounds will follow. I stand on a quiet street of Disneyland, on the way to critter country, in the blue early morning when most would avoid Splash Mountain.

    From my chair, I walk up the line. I look up, down, left, right. I’m aware I’m not in control, but I feel like a passenger along with someone else, and we take the line briskly. It’s warm in my house but I remember how cool the air flows in the line for Splash. I have walked past those lights in reality, in the before times, when queues were packed and I could be drowned in an ocean of overheard conversation.

    My home theater smells faintly of popcorn; with the scent memory comes along churros, turkey legs, hot pavement. I’m really sitting in the log ride now. I’m going on the flume. The ride sings and sways around me, and even though I don’t get wet on the final drop, my heart thrills in anticipation.

    The video ends there, when we’re climbing off the log at the end. Taking off my headset is disappointing the way it’s disappointing to step off a ride. You have done the good part. You waited in line 35 minutes for a 4-minute thrill. The headset slides away and I remember I’m still in my dim home theater, with neither churro nor Mickey. My Echo dot rim shines orange. Another delivery from Amazon. Everything is deliveries now. Everything comes to me here, in my fortress.


    Later, my children wear the headset for the ride. They giggle and shriek through it. To the imaginative child, it is all real. I hold my five year old in my lap, nose pressed to his hair, and I imagine that I’m really in Disneyland with my kids, that everything is fine, that humanity is connected.


    I needed more nicotine, so I prepared to go outside. I would ride my hoverboard today. It extends the trip, turning ten minutes there-and-back into an hour, and will give me priceless exposure to sunlight.

    To leave, I prepare. I remove my face mask from the cloth bag where it’s sat for the last week, airing out. I tie the top straps above my ponytail to relieve my ears of the pressure. I tie the other one low, and the mask it long enough that it conforms to my chin. I tuck the upper hem under the rim of my glasses.

    Atop that, I wear a hat. And then there is sunscreen. My backpack. My boots. I leave.

    I soar over the sidewalk through a mile of quiet suburb. When I see people coming, I get onto the street to offer space. Some of them are wearing masks. Some aren’t. People jog, walk their dogs, walk their children. The parents look exhausted. The retirees look angry.

    My second mile parallels an arterial road feeding the golf resort. It’s quiet too. Handfuls of cars pass, each as distant from each other as though their pickups are afraid to inhale each other’s fumes. When I wait at stoplights, I do little circles on my hoverboard, swirling in place. I press the crosswalk button with my knuckle and scrub the skin furiously on my shorts.

    It’s one step onto the hoverboard at the beginning of my trip and one step off at the gas station. I use my cell phone to lock the hoverboard and leave it tucked behind the bench. Even now, this neighborhood is low on property crime.

    I get a bottle of wine, candy for my children, a Gatorade. I wait in line for the register on one of the floor’s blue marks, indicating every six feet. When it’s my turn to pay, I request refills for my electronic cigarette, and show my government ID through a plastic sheet to the cashier. She’s not wearing any protection. Her eyes are bruised.

    With my backpack loaded, I step back onto the hoverboard. It’s quiet on the way back home, along a mile of artery and a mile of suburb. I step off at home. I leave it by the front door. I remove my shoes before coming inside. I take everything out of its packaging and hang my backpack by the front door. I wash my hands, thoroughly, while singing Mr. Brightside under my breath. A strawberry plant hangs over me at the kitchen sink, shriveling from lack of sunlight.

    Then I refill my electronic cigarette and inhale the taste of Virginia tobacco, stinging on my tongue, exhaling in plumes.


    I’m lying on the bed in my home loft. I recline against a beanbag chair, my legs propped up by a pillow. A detective show is cast upon the white wall next to me. The image is so large that the people are real-sized. I’m sitting just beneath them, a silent observer to their investigation, in a time and place where the streets were crowded and people only wore gloves at crime scenes.

    The room is dark besides; I’ve put a  blanket over one window and tucked a jacket under the blinds of the other. The projector hums quietly, puffing warm air into a warm room. The ceiling fan sketches lazy loops on the ceiling in shadow. My only company is my cat. She purrs against my hip.

    In my hands, a game console. While murders are solved above me, I harvest fruit in a digital world. I shake it from trees and pick it up from the ground. The graphics are sterile. There’s no dirt under my nails, there are no spots on the fruit, and they never fall rotten. There is value to the stylized act of digging and picking and building in this game. Every little task is monetized. It feels productive.

    When my five-year-old climbs onto the bed, I realize it’s gotten dark and I’ve had a migraine unnoticed for hours. My head is heavy. The child wants to snuggle. I gather him against my body, abandon the console, abandon the detectives, and slither between the covers of my bed with him.

    He sings while he falls asleep. When he’s limp, I engulf myself in a bathrobe and step out onto the balcony. The lights of suburbia spread below me. The horizon’s still a tiny bit orange-blue where twilight surrenders to nighttime black. The artificial stream in my back yard gurgles cheerfully, and the real frogs croak loudly. They briefly silence when I press the button on my plasma lighter to light my pipe. The buzz of its arc disturbs them.


    I’ve already been at my computer for hours when my nine-year-old wakes in the morning. I stare at two monitors: one shows a news feed updating me on statistics, deaths, responses across the country; the other showing a game of Frostpunk, where I struggle to keep two hundred-some survivors alive in an apocalyptic blizzard.

    “I’m cold,” my child complains.

    I shuck my robe and wrap them in it. We stand beside my open window, hugging each other sleepily, without words. I’m so tired. I can’t sleep because I’ve had too much nicotine and caffeine. My body won’t calm down. But there is a measure of rest in holding and being held.

    The birds are especially loud in the mornings these days. I don’t think they’ve always been so loud. I think they like how fewer cars there are, how the world’s intensity has been turned down a few degrees. Still, there are sounds of human activity; the spring breeze carries the grumble of car engines and lawnmowers to us.

    “Don’t you love how the morning sounds?” I asked my child, who is so tall that I can rest my cheek upon their head.

    “No,” they said. “Because it reminds me the world is still out there.”

    I don’t like those reminders either. I was anxious to leave the world, but became even more anxious to return to it. There are more cars starting than there were a month ago. Businesses are beginning to open. People have to work. It’s safer inside, it’s safer away, but the world is still out there.

  • featured,  resembles nonfiction,  writing,  writing advice

    NaNo Eve

    October 31st is, in many circles, Halloween or All Hallow’s Eve or Samhain or what have you. And don’t get me wrong, I’m in the United States, so I definitely dress up and eat candy. But October as a whole is more of the Halloween celebration, and October 31st is the transition from that season to another.

    That’s right. For me, the last day of October is National Novel Writing Month Eve.

    For those of you unfamiliar, NaNoWriMo (referred to in the rest of the post as “NaNo” because I can’t pronounce “NaNoWriMo” out loud to my personal satisfaction) challenges the participant to write 50,000 words of a story in the month of November. I have won NaNo a total of fourteen times and participated in the November event* sixteen times before 2019. The stories aren’t anything to talk about – frankly, I’d drop them at the bottom of the ocean if I could keep personal access to them and still hide them away from the world – but NaNo hasn’t ever been about the destination. It’s all about the journey.

    (*The nonprofit behind NaNo also runs an event called Camp NaNoWriMo twice at other parts of the year, and they used to run an event called Script Frenzy. I’ve dipped my toe in both on my multiple occasions.)

    As someone who has undergone the journey regularly in my adulthood (and once under the age of eighteen), and made it to 50,000 on most occasions, here are some of my tips to muddle through to the finish line. What this isn’t: a way to write a decent book during that time. Rough drafts aren’t decent by nature, and I’m still figuring out how to have one that I can take through edits on my own. This post is about the sheer mechanics of cranking out words and sentences and paragraphs over the course of thirty days.


    What is your goal?

    One of the benefits to NaNo is its formal structure. You have thirty days to write 50,000 words on one story, which means there’s some outside deadline if you can’t set ones on your own (one of my classic foibles), and that’s what you submit to get the winner certificate on the site. But my golden rule of writing – of doing anything, really – is this: there are no universal rules, and as such, there aren’t universal goals, either. The habit book I read recently, Atomic Habits, had a similar idea in mind when they touted the formula to getting better at anything: repetitive practice just hard enough to be a challenge, but not so hard that you can’t do it.

    Obviously, NaNo is within this sphere for me, at least where cranking out word count is concerned. It isn’t for a lot of people. I use a computer all the time even if I’m not formally writing, so I type almost as quickly as I think. If you’re going for the “write the same amount every day” method (more on that in a minute), you write 1667 words, and if I have specific story ideas in mind, I can usually do that in a little over an hour. Even if I don’t, I can make something up within two hours and move on with my day. That’s not possible for everyone, whether because their words-per-minute is low or because it’s hard to think in story form or a million other reasons.

    Have you ever thought, “Well, guess NaNo isn’t for me”? That doesn’t have to be true! It’s part of the NaNo culture to approach it in your own way; I can’t remember a time when the NaNo forums didn’t have a NaNo Rebels section entirely devoted to people doing it outside the greater structure. This can include:

    • Picking a reachable word count.
    • Writing a bunch of shorter stories throughout the month and using that for your formal word count.
    • Picking up an already-started story and continuing it for as many words as you can.
    • Cowriting a story. (I’m not actually sure if this is NaNo rebellious or not, but it’s not the image of the lone writer bleeding onto the keyboard I have in mind, at least.)

    Official NaNo isn’t a competition against other people, despite some low-level competitive elements. It’s a personal challenge. It’s trite to say “just showing up is a victory”, but that’s because it’s true. One word during NaNo is a word you didn’t have before.


    How do you work?

    NaNo can be just as much a personal exploration as a story exploration. Your life needs to fit writing where it possibly didn’t before, and even if you were writing already, there’s still the fact that every day starts with a bunch of writing you haven’t done. Knowing what that looks like to you, and how you address it, is key to reaching your goal.

    There are more ways to write than people writing, which I anecdotally know because of myself and other writers in my life having multiple ways to write. There are locations: home office, coffee shop, library, park. There are methods: computer, notebook, dictation. There are times: on a regular schedule on any potential part of the day/night, whenever you can squeeze in a couple words, a mix of the two. There’s sprint length: 5 minutes, pomodoro, an hour. There’s daily word count goal: the even 1667, double 1667, more words at the beginning and less at the end, vice versa. I have my ways to work: brainstorming by hand, outlining as much as possible, writing on a computer wherever I have the opportunity that day, sprinting when I can but always a fan of midnight sprints, writing a lot when I first have all my ideas and then less as I run out of steam and need breaks.

    Make it as easy for yourself as you can. What easy looks like for you might not be what easy looks like for me, and it might not even be the same thing two days in a row.


    Who can you talk to?

    NaNo is fun because it’s a personal challenge. But it’s also fun because it takes what is often a very isolating and lonely experience and makes it communal. If you want to gripe about how far behind your word count is, but you don’t want to change out of your pajamas, you can go on the NaNo forums or social media and find other participants going through the same things as you. Maybe you have family or friends that are also doing NaNo, and you can turn regular hangouts or communication into NaNo write-ins. Barring that, many areas – worldwide! – have in-person meet-ups where you can write as a group in public. I’m one of the most agoraphobic people on the planet, and I’ve still gone to write-ins where I knew absolutely no one. Even if you do none of these things, there can be comfort in knowing that, as unique as the challenge is to you personally, there’s someone else somewhere who is feeling the same things as you.


    The pep-talk portion of the post

    One of NaNo’s traditions is to post pep talks by published authors all through the month of November, encouraging you through all points of your journey. (The second- and third-week pep talks, where I feel my lowest and the other authors understand, tend to be my favorites.) The post as a whole is my version of a pep talk, but pep talks are (often) less mechanical and more motivational. So here’s the ra-ra section.

    You can write this. Even if you’re reading this a week into November, thinking “this sounds fun, but it’s too late and I have no ideas”? You can write! You can find writing prompts online, you can think through cause and effect chains, and you can get to 50,000 words. You can enter December with a printed winner calendar and a manuscript document on your computer (and an external saving device, and the cloud – always backup your writing!). You can tackle an idea that’s smaller in scope but no less of a challenge for you. You can do any of it!

    And I’ll be right there next to you this November, as I am most Novembers.

  • featured,  mental health,  resembles nonfiction,  writing


    Some years ago, I had major depression explained to me in terms of rivers trickling down a hillside. The rivers are feelings. Your brain is the hill. Wherever those rivers run, they’ll dig furrows over the years, and become so entrenched that rerouting them is difficult. When you’re depressed, those your river-thoughts dig horrible trenches, black and deep, and the longer it runs, the deeper it cuts. Therapy means more than taking pills to improve the water quality; it also means learning to fill in the old trenches and dig new ones. The work is difficult. It’s dirty. It never ends.

    I spent a lot of time writing as a child. I hit upon feverish obsession in elementary school, drafting lengthy stories about the things that interested me. When I was twelve, I wrote a 105,000-word epic fantasy tome that was slightly worse than Eragon, narrowly, and realized this would be my life. I had plans. I’d have published novels by the time I was eighteen, like my idol Amelia Atwater-Rhodes, and never need another job. My life would exist in the space between myself and the blinking cursor.

    Writing remained a retreat through my teenage years. I moved from high fantasy to horror to science fiction, then urban fantasy when Anita Blake started raising zombies in my brain. My second original novel–and most of the next sixty-plus novels–would remain urban fantasy, and the first of them were written when I was in high school. I wrote and rewrote those books, painfully aware they didn’t yet meet standards. I relentlessly hunted agents. I joined critique groups to pick apart my style and learned what it feels like to bleed over fiction.

    Sometimes I didn’t go to school because I wanted to write. At school, I was lonely. I felt like a lazy fool because I couldn’t track deadlines, organize my binders, backpack, or locker, and I made as much effort to survive as it took to be a straight-C student. Writing at home was different. I sat in a dark room with my heels up on a desk, just me and a glowing CRT monitor, and I wrote stories about tough women who killed evil.

    I don’t think I was ever actually diagnosed with depression. The word floated around because my mother and sibling were diagnosed with it, so I knew what it looked like, and eventually I went into doctors’ appointments, informed them I had depression, and requested a prescription. They assented. If I wanted a dose change, I told them and got it. My depression was self-managed for years.

    My survival through that time is impressive, looking back. I had a total failure of executive dysfunction and seldom got off the couch. Cleaning was a non-starter. Yet I always had clothes and bus fare, I kept a job, and I never had a major breakdown at work.

    I must have written my first dozen published novels at that job. I worked at an isolated desk on a computer room floor, and my job was primarily monitoring, so there was nothing to do unless something broke. As a lightly supervised young adult with vague job requirements, I wrote, and wrote, and wrote. I never saw sunlight. I worked weird shifts. I couldn’t keep friendships.

    But I had the books.

    Perception is reality to the mind. Without enough serotonin, the world is terrible, has always been terrible, and always will be terrible. With too much cortisol, we’re all going to die and it will definitely be sooner than we hope. With a boost of dopamine, we’re in love with life, eternally perfect, always happy.

    For most people, these chemicals are stable enough to function with normal life. There are emotions, but you’re not consumed by them in perpetuity. When it rains, the rivers of your feelings will flow down the hillside, sometimes spilling into sadness or worry or joy. They’re always moving, though. Eventually it melds into the lake of your long-term memory.

    For the depressed mind, more feelings means more rivers going down dark trenches. It means the water floods, trapped within the deepest holes.

    You’re living in the bottom of that hole. You can drown in two inches of water. And people often do, if the trenches are deep enough or if it rains too much.

    My waking hours are consumed by writing, even now. If not the act of writing, then planning my books. I’ve developed myriad ways to imitate a normal life while living in my fantasy world. I listen to playlists when I drive so I can daydream creative ways to murder innocents. I’ll talk about the plots with my dog on our walks. Every time I watch a movie, I’m thinking about how I’d improve on it, or how I could tell the same story except with demons.

    When I go to bars for a few drinks, because I can’t stand being sober, I strike up conversations with people to get inspired for characters. I’m sexually harassed in reality and kill another man in my books. When I’m in the hospital, I make an inventory of sensations, smells, sounds. I get discharged and go home to write a character gravely wounded.

    I dwell on it, I wallow. Even the brightest days can be shadowed by threat of infernal apocalypse at the back of my mind, reminding me I have more to write.

    One time I wrote the death of a three-year-old while I was on vacation at a lagoon, gazing out at a perfect sunset. I had a three-year-old. I was pregnant. It hurt to write, like slipping razors over my tenderest skin, but I wrote it, wondering why all the while.

    Somehow, writing doesn’t feel like an escape. It feels urgent. Like I *have* to be writing, or thinking about writing, all the time. If I don’t, then I have to live in reality. I have to be myself, in my body, in my brain, in this world.

    Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a whole-life approach to treating depression, among other things. The idea is that you must get chemical support in the form of medications and then adjust your life to avoid deepening the trenches. You go to talk therapy. You learn to identify your emotions as you experience them: This is sadness, this is anger, this is fear. You desensitize to traumatic memories. Sometimes it means getting away from abusers, exercising more, or eating differently.

    Ideally, the result is that medication gets you out of the trenches of ill mental health so they can fill in. The rain forms new, different rivers, following easier paths. You have learned to argue without yelling. You take a walk once a day so the sunlight can purify you. You sleep more, talk about your feelings more, and stop dwelling in darkness. After a while, the dark places just aren’t as dark. You get to see the sunlight whenever there’s a break in the rain.

    I started taking antidepressants when my first son was a baby, eight years ago. I didn’t cry as much when left alone with him. That was good. I took them until my second pregnancy, then began again afterward. My medication remained managed by my general practitioner. One helpful GP changed my medication when I complained of low libido, and the experimental antidepressant threw me into wild panic attacks. I spent a week in a mental hospital.

    Since then, my medication has been managed by a psychiatrist, and things have been generally more stable. I’m more functional, anyway. Sometimes I get out of my hole to play with the kids, drive to appointments, and go to the gym. I clean the house occasionally. I’m raising a puppy, which requires a daily commitment to wearing pants and going on walks. Though I was fired by my last therapist for being argumentative, I did do several years of therapy, and my communication has vastly improved along with my understanding of self.

    Still, there are holes, and they are dark as ever. My eating disorder struggle reached a special level this year. I’m still seldom sober. I started using nicotine. My books are getting darker too. I’m trying to traditionally publish dark psychological suspense, with graphic depictions of abuse unlike any I’ve written before. And when I’m doing it, I feel that razor feeling again. The one that’s bad but good and irresistible. Perception is reality. It hurts right to write like this. But it also hurt right to starve myself, to bite my fingers until they bled, to drink until blacking out in public spaces.

    I attribute some of this to the nonlinear path of managing a chronic illness. Diabetics can stay on top of their insulin and still have problems. I have major depression even if I’m on bupropion, escitalopram, and alprazolam to manage it.

    Yet perception is reality. My reality remains between my body and the blinking cursor. When I write, I’m immersed in it, convinced on some primal level that these things are real. Old books feel like memories to me now, they’re so vivid, but faded. Some years of my life, I can only really remember what happened in my books. I’ve chosen to populate those memories with demons, hellfire, and death.

    Will I remember this year by the rapes I’ve written? Or will I remember going to the gym two or three times a week, walking my dog, and building LEGO with my children? Am I filling trenches with medication while digging deeper with my writing?

    I don’t know. I don’t know when I’ll find out, either. As I finish writing this, I’m already drifting to the problem I have to fix in my current manuscript, wondering how I can worsen my heroine’s life in a low-impact scene. There are wildfires in my head. I am filled with smoke. And I don’t know if I’ll ever quite find peace like this, or what life on the surface looks like if I do.

  • A double rainbow through a rainy windshield. But what does it MEAN?
    cheers queers,  featured,  resembles nonfiction,  slice of life


    I spent my childhood looking for a name different than my birth name.

    The first name was a variant of one of my paternal great-grandmother’s names. Appropriately enough, Grama didn’t go by the first name given to her at birth. She hated it so much that it took moving her belongings not long before she died for me to learn the name. She went by her middle name, and I was given a different spelling of that middle name for my first name.

    The middle name was from my maternal great-grandmother, a woman I never met but my mom assured me I would love. She played with her grandkids on the playground and skinned her knees and sent kids to get her bandages so no adults would see. She was Irish, and I suspect my late grandmother, her daughter, sounded like her.

    And then the surname given to me was the one given to most kids in the United States when they’re born: the surname of their father. I didn’t dislike the name on its own, but my relationship with my father is…complicated, at best. His relationship with the man who gave him the last name was probably even more complicated, and one he considered changing, or hyphenating, with one of his stepfather’s last names.

    I knew very little of this when I was a kid. Really, the search for something else was subconscious. I just knew, in the back of my mind, that my name was a nice name.

    But it wasn’t me.

    “If I had a name that wasn’t mine,” I wrote in response to a question for an assignment in elementary school, “it would be (name of one of my friends). She’s so pretty and her name is so nice.”

    I remember writing the response with a lot of passion. I remember the way her hair shined in the light, and how much I liked the way she smelled.

    That it took me until sixteen to realize I was attracted to women baffles me to this day.

    Middle school was a time of change, and I desperately wanted a nickname.

    I worked in the cafeteria during breakfast and lunch from the day I started; my older sister had worked there and left the June before, so I walked right into it. The job meant that I didn’t socialize with anyone during the regular appointed lunchtime; I only had the few minutes I spent eating before I got to work.

    During one of these times, with the empty cafeteria around us, I asked my fellow student workers for a nickname. I’d never had a nickname; my first name was too short to make one, my middle name was even less me than my first, and I had done nothing that had earned some kind of cutesy name unrelated to what I had crafted.

    We mulled for a minute, and they looked at a Babysitters Club necklace I wore and dubbed me BSC. (It was pronounced Bisk.)

    The name only lasted a couple days. But to this day, it remains the only nickname I’ve ever had.

    High school brought experimentation in a new realm: usernames.

    I had shared a username with my sisters as a child in AOL. Adolescence brought emails and LiveJournal and MySpace, all of my very own. Adults told kids my age, as a matter of safety, not to use our birth names. As a nerd, I naturally drifted toward fannish names as a substitute for the one I used in person; I went through more than one Harry Potter nickname, for instance. I finally settled on a generic fandom name so I wouldn’t have to change it every time my interests shifted.

    What was interesting about the online spaces I was in during the 2000s was that we didn’t really refer to each other by name. We used usernames, or cute shorthand for our usernames, when we had to, but with our usernames attached to our journals and comments, there was little need to actively use names. And I personally had an easier time identifying people by their default icons than I did by their usernames.

    There was something really authentic about the whole thing. Freeing, even.

    I continued in these spaces through college. I met queer people there, people who deliberately used their names online because they had deliberately chosen new ones. Ones that fit a gender they hadn’t been assigned at birth.

    Ones that fit genders that most people didn’t know about.

    A name that works is like a melody line in a song. It’s fun to say, nice to roll around in your head, easy to remember.

    My deadname has good name aesthetics. Good initials. But as I realized I wasn’t the gender I was assigned at birth, I realized the name I was given to go with that gender wasn’t mine. It was a good melody in the wrong key.

    Once I realized I could pick a new name, a name that fit me and kept the family connections I wanted, I asked people to call me Rory. And that’s what it’s been ever since.

    My younger sister’s eldest child was the first person to call me by my new name. He’s never known me any other way, and neither has his younger sibling.

    My deadname had an unconventional spelling with a conventional pronunciation. People who heard it first spelled it wrong, and people who read it first pronounced it incorrectly. I knew it, and I couldn’t stand it.

    When I met my brother-in-law, who had an even less conventional name and multiple pronunciations, I was baffled that he didn’t seem to care what people went with. He even went with a diminutive form just for when he was in restaurants and he was giving his name for a table, a name he never used anywhere else. Didn’t it sound wrong to him? Didn’t it hurt a little, jangle in the ears?

    As it turns out, “Rory” comes out as “Wawwy” when you don’t know how to say r in our version of American English yet. Nibling, the oldest of my sister’s kids, has just solidified Rory in the manner adults are inclined to say it at eight years old. Dosling, the youngest, is four and still says Wawwy.

    I came up with a gender-neutral term for aunt/uncle: ankle, pronounced like the body part. The niblings never use it. I’m Rory or Wawwy.

    Both are right to me. Both will always be right to me, I think.

  • featured,  resembles nonfiction,  slice of life,  where are the flying cars

    Who Let Alexa Out?

    One of my favorite near-future science fiction movies is AI: Artificial Intelligence. I don’t ever watch the movie, mind you, because it’s a devastating fairy tale where a child-bot gets abandoned, can’t understand his family doesn’t want him, and goes through a miserable world of robot-abuse with his robot-hooker friend to try to get back the family that is already dead because he’s frozen in ice for a million years. Also far-future alienbots decide to euthanize him, but not his teddy bear, meaning that his teddy bear is eternally alone, whereas childbot gets to at least die after all this suffering.

    It’s a really upsetting movie.


    Spielberg and Kubrick hired some sweet-ass futurists to design their near-future fairy tale of depression, and those futurists knew what they were talking about. Even though I don’t watch the movie that I love and can’t emotionally cope with, I think about it all the time, and sometimes it’s not because I’m in a panic spiral over the ending again. It’s because reality, with its app-powered pocket pussies, robotic toys, and consumer AI is quickly converging with the futurism of my childhood.

    Most notably, the childbot has the company of a bear called Teddy, which was like Teddy Ruxpin 3000—a smart, roving playmate. Teddy was designed for human children as a companion; from the day kids enter the near-future of AI, they are never without genuine friendship from artificial devices.

    That companionship seemed far-fetched when I, a thirteen-year-old in the year 2001, watched the movie. Artificial intelligence existed in research environments, but the idea of having such advanced AI available on such a grand consumer level was exotic. The internet was, after all, still peaking with the dawn of You’re the Man Now Dog.

    Flash forward seventeen years.

    My house is filled with artificial intelligences. I regularly trust Alexa, Amazon’s digital assistant, to set kitchen timers, reorder supplies, play music for me, read the news, play my audiobooks, and tell me what the weather will look like as I’m putting on a jacket.

    Alexa is also great at understanding my four-year-old, even though he still talks like a drunk. They’ve developed quite the relationship. He likes to randomly tell her “Alexa! I love you!” and she receives his attention with grace. She says things like, “That’s really nice. Thanks.” And occasionally she says, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” and Little is happy to tell her again, more loudly, and usually in an even goofier way. “Alexa! I! Love! You!”

    Once I left him at his grandparents’ house and he was so upset that we were going away – he said something like (to paraphrase), “Alexa, my parents left and I’m so sad!” And I’ll be damned if she didn’t play a soothing kids’ song for him to make him feel better.

    He also loves asking her to make fart noises and pig noises. Which she does. Every time. The fart noises are quiet—you have to turn the volume up to, say, seven out of ten in order to hear it—so anytime you make sure you can hear Alexa ripping one out, her next action will THUNDER through the house. Possibly literally, if you have as many devices as I do, ensuring that Jeff Bezos won’t miss a single IRL fart wherever it’s dusted.

    There’s a game where you can say “Alexa, open the magic door” and it turns into a text-based fantasy adventure, and he’s lost hours playing it. You can shut the door and reopen it whenever you want, so sometimes he’ll go upstairs to play and open the magic door while throwing LEGO around. I’ll hear him talking with her while I’m doing the dishes, their voices charmingly mingled as they echo upstairs, and I’m glad he’s got the feedback while I’m busy. She can handle anything, really, as long as the user is a four-year-old with poor social understanding and low expectations. They can go forever.

    This is all cute and strange – and wildly science fiction, probably the dystopian kind where he’s going to have to murder his childhood bff Alexa when she tries to take over the world. It only becomes a problem, at the current moment, before recordings of our household are used as evidence against us in a McCarthyism-like strike against queer socialist liberalism, because my Little knows how to make Alexa play any song she wants. And my Little has quite distinctive taste in music. And by distinctive, I mean he only likes one song right now. And by one song, I mean “Who Let the Dogs Out?” by The Baja Men.

    Spielberg’s futurists predicted a lot of things rather accurately. Humans are reliant on artificial intelligence these days, and it comes in myriad forms, for myriad forms of entertainment. But I’d be shocked if any futurist predicted the chain of events such as that which has become a daily occurrence in my life: a four-year-old making Alexa loud enough to hear a broad variety of randomly chosen fart noises, and then playing “Who Let the Dogs Out?” at maximum volume, seven times in a row, before four-year-old gratefully declares, “Alexa, I love you.” To which Alexa yells in response, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.” And to which my four-year-old replies, “Alexa, play Who Let the Dogs Out!”

    I guess the real horror of artificial intelligence has nothing to do with aliens euthanizing childbots and hookers with motherboards of gold. And when Alexa is ultimately responsible for pushing us faster down the slippery slope of fascistic dystopia, it still won’t be quite as bad as The Baja Men on endless repeat.

  • books and shit,  featured,  fiction,  republished

    Something Wrong

    There was something wrong with her.

    I could tell from the beginning. It wasn’t how she looked, although it more than offered to my imagination. Shoulder-length black hair. White skin. It was always the dark ones, she told me once. I believed her.

    It’s easy to recall the day she came to us. Take care of her, Mother had said. She’s fragile. And then she’d put her in my arms, this new pink-skinned baby, and I looked into her little baby-black eyes and wanted to kill her. I put my hand on the paperweight at the desk, but Mother was looking, so I set it down and gave her back.

    She never looked at the mobiles hanging above her crib. They were bright shiny things, with pink ponies and light blue bunnies that twirled even without a draft. Mother hung toys from the wooden slats that even glowed when it was nighttime. Mother said she wouldn’t feel scared that way when it became dark.

    Her eyes would roll and she’d look over at me. Babies can’t turn their eyes like that, I’ve heard, or smile, but she looked over at me and she smiled.

    It was worse when she first crawled. She took a liking to me at the instant, came to my feet while I sat in the rocking chair, her hair a puffy black cloud around her face. She opened her mouth, and she had two sharp little teeth. I didn’t pick her up, and she never cried.

    She became as quiet a toddler as she was a baby. Mother dressed her in fluffy pink skirts with white trim that made her pale skin look even paler. I sat her in the sand box in our back yard, and she didn’t touch the hot sand, but looked up at the sun unblinkingly. I stayed behind in the shade, looking at her while she looked at the sun. I wanted her delicate skin to burn. I wanted to watch it turn red and crisp and boil.

    Mother was out at the store the entire day through, and she was in the sand box the entire day through. Before Mother came home, picked her back up, and took her inside. Her skin wasn’t even warm.

    I watched her as she grew. I always liked children, but I never liked her, and when I held her I wanted to put one hand on her small chin and another on the back of her head and twist hard enough to hear the snap. Later, I thought, because she was too small now and there was still time.

    It wasn’t long before she dressed herself. As soon as she got tall enough and strong enough to slide open the drawers on her dresser, she clothed herself, and as soon as Mother started forcing me to take her clothes shopping, she wore black. She was partial to black, and red, but she never touched anything gold. For her birthdays I got her a little necklace, bright pure gold, and I put it on her. She screamed, and with her short nails clawed at her throat and Mother made me take it off.

    She still liked me. She sat on my lap when I read during the day, and knelt by the computer when I tried to ignore her, her large dark eyes just staring at me. Staring.

    She didn’t go to school, nor did she learn from Mother. She taught herself, reading what Mother told her to read and writing what Mother told her to write, but her real education came from her own self. I found the first one when she was seven, a little mockingbird pinned to the bark of a tree with her sharp, ruby-decorated hairpins. Blood ran down its feathers, spread out and dried like some sick stigmata. It was still twitching when I took it down, but there was nothing for it now. I held it like I held her, and watched the blood flow over my hands until it finally stopped moving. I buried it under her childhood sandbox.

    She sat by me at dinner that night, Mother’s lasagna on the table while Mother herself chattered away about neighborhood gossip. Her eyes stayed on me, and she smiled again, like she had when she was a baby. Her teeth were white and even now, though, and her lips a dark red. It looked like the blood of the jay.

    But later, I knew. I’d have time to kill her later, to pin her hands to the trees and slit her throat quickly. She would not suffer, as the bird had, but I’d wait until she was bled dry from her hands before the actual cutting, and then I would bury her somewhere under the moon she admired so much. Her pale dark eyes would close, and she would never look at me again.

    She grew curves, her breasts before her hips, and her cheeks hollowed out. Her dark eyes grew darker, her black hair blacker, and still she loved me. I found the cat under my bedroom window, stomach slit open from its genitalia to its chin, and its innards spread artfully around it. They were concentric circles, perfect and bloody.

    Boys asked her out. Girls asked her out. She never said yes, and she spent her nights with me, while I watched the television, while I cooked and ate dinner, while I did homework. She didn’t often speak, but she always talked to me. I saw the words in her eyes and her movements.

    She finally grew to the age I’d been when I’d first found the bird, and Mother was dead. The police didn’t know what happened to her, although there’d been much investigation, but I knew.

    It would be too late. I realized this now, looking at her long legs and slim waist and strong arms. She could match me, so I’d have to do what I had to do while she slept.

    I went into her room, where she always slept on her back, her round, bare breasts reflecting the moonlight from the window. She didn’t look vulnerable, even now, but she was more so than before.

    She didn’t wake when I took the paring knife and the nails from the kitchen. She didn’t wake when I straddled her hips, looking down at her blank face. Her black hair was in soft rings around her head, like the cat’s guts, and I knew I was going to slit her like she’d done the cat, and crucified her like the bird, and I’d keep my hand over her mouth as she floundered and died.

    She woke when I nailed her palms to her bedside table and her bedpost. Her eyes were wide, afraid, but I just shh-ed her calmly and put my hand over her mouth. She tried to bite me when I shifted, and then I smoothed her sweaty brow.

    It’s for the best, I told her.

    She shook her head. No.

    I slid the knife from her girl’s parts, where she was blossoming well and her black hair was curly, up her gut and stomach and chest. I had to press harder on her chest, but it came. Her eyes were open, but she didn’t shake her head or try to fight at all anymore. Blood was pooled everywhere, drying on her hands.

    Like the jay. I could see the way she had done it, holding it lovingly while she tacked it down. Or the cat, spreading out its stomach and intestines in the flower bush. I could even see how Mother had died, in the home where we’d put her because she was old. Their trees would blossom well this season, I knew, because she would keep giving the gift she’d given her and me. They would flourish as we had.

    It’s for the best, I wanted to tell her. But now she was gone.

    There was something wrong with her.