Use the danger, up the stakes, and make the ‘nothing’ devastating
When I read Bookshelf Battle’s complaints about romance novels, one quote stood out for me:
‘In conclusion, if the stakes are high, your novel I will buy. (That was my best Johnnie Cochran impression.) I’m telling you Romance authors, write more lovelorn ugly characters into your books and I will be on the edge of my seat with anticipation.’
I propose something a little different here: if you make the stakes high enough for any character, their looks become redundant.
Marian Halcombe in Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (one of the most fabulous ‘classics’ I’ve ever read, PLEASE read it!) earns the narrator’s observation ‘The lady is ugly’ from an early stage, and yet this woman is perhaps the most admirable character in the novel as she fights to free her friend from the clutches of a beastly marriage and a kidnapping plot. Angela Tramello in Peter F Hamilton’s Great North Road is a pretty damn sexy woman, and uses it to her advantage in many ways, but ultimately she’s on a battle to clear her name after a lengthy prison sentence for murder she didn’t commit. Both these women seriously rock. Ugly or beautiful? Neither mattered. Neither of those books are exactly a romance novel (far from it) but let’s apply the idea to the chemistry between characters, whether romantic or erotic: the danger is the thing. If they use their looks to fight it, that’s only the secondary concern.
Let’s get back to Oscar then. I went for him being a stunning catch. Okay, next level: I based him on possibly the cutest guy I ever met in my life, a stranger I shared five minutes of conversation with in a video games store before I bought a copy of Naughty Bear and left thinking ‘WHY are you probably straight and WHY could you not live in the same town I do?’ I don’t remember the name on his badge but I picked Oscar because something just told me that name suited him.
Bottom line here: my reader will not like this character just because he’s partly my fantasy, and I can’t afford to be in lust with him at all times either, because he’s going to ruin his family and wind up with nothing, and I’ve got to make him do it. He’s going to cheat on his life partner with very little conscience, and indeed argue that it even makes their sex life better after he learns tricks from everyone else. So where’s the danger here?
Bookshelf Battle writes that if a character loses their lover and ends up with nothing, ‘Those are some high stakes.’ Agreed, so let’s make them count. How about:
– A character who has lots of different partners in real life is at pretty high risk of catching something either nasty or deadly
– A character who does the above might make the partner who says he’s okay with affairs think twice about that
– A character who the above happens to might become a social pariah when the word gets out. Especially if they’re from a ‘good family’
– The consequences of the above are the family’s financial ruin
– The character ends up either being thrown out of his home or leaving in shame with little to call his own but a name and a remote plan for redeeming himself that probably won’t work
Guess what? I did all that to poor Oscar, the character I dreamed up so I could be in lust with him and then gave a cutsy nickname and a multi-millionaire family and a fabulously indulgent life that revolves around him getting most anything and anyone he wants. Now he’s on the level of those who had to crawl from the gutter and fight for everything they have. Will he learn any lessons? There’s the tension for the next part. When he meets Screft, the more central protagonist of the novel, will he end up wrecking the shape-shifter’s already difficult life even more?
The ‘nothing’ has to count. Nothing is not always high stakes. Ever watched ‘Up in the Air’ where George Cloony’s character does the motivational speech about how exciting it would be to wake up tomorrow with nothing? Kinda true, isn’t it? Not for a character like Oscar though. When Oscar heads to Sentago with his plan, he might be fighting against his dirty reputation and trying to keep it quiet from the new society who don’t know him yet (although believe me they will by the end of the book!) but in a way, he’s actually exited by the adventure, even if part of him wishes he’d just NEVER had sex in his life, or thought it was a good idea to play away. Because his family have the kind of nothing they’ve never seen, and his ‘special’ little brother Tarin now won’t go to college to become a zoo keeper.
See how little Oscar’s looks matter during all this? Whether he prefers men or women or actually does like both equally doesn’t matter much either in the end. Perhaps if I had made him ugly from the start the whole thing would have been harder for him, but this is where I wonder how far you can stretch the ground rules. Would an ugly nymphomaniac really be that believable? Perhaps people like that do exist, but I don’t feel like arguing that they make good reading. A handsome person literally fucking up everything they have and ending up no more attractive than an ugly one? Now that I’m more interested in. But it’s the danger and the stakes that make it happen, and the ‘nothing’ counting in buckets that will keep people reading about Oscar. Or at least hopefully.
What this adds up to is:
Your beautiful character is a train wreck waiting to happen
Let’s go for the metaphorical first. As a reader, when I encounter a beautiful character who has everything, including fun and love in their life, I either wonder how they’re going to destroy it all or, in an uncomfortable sort of way, I want to see that happen. Yeah, I’m the soft type who wants to see them have some sort of second shot and learn some lessons and come out of it a better person, but not necessarily with that fairytale ending. When I as the author have created a wreckage, I can act as search and rescue and salvage and the repair company, but how much I do it entirely depends on what the said wreckage generates for the story.
Haven’t we all at some stage read an article about someone whose life was a mess and become a lot more thankful for how easy ours was by comparison? Haven’t we all asked the question about how happy beautiful people really are when we see the hounded because of their famous face? Metaphorical train wrecks sell tabloid papers, it’s true, but if they’re handled with a certain amount of empathy and humanity in fiction, they not only sell books but they can (gasp!) make a good one.
Now let’s go for the physical interpretation. As the author, you have the option of taking a beautiful character and disfiguring them. Ruin that pretty face and body with your method of choice. What happens now? It’s almost a good exercise: start with a famous face ruined by something horrible, then write the story about how they deal with it. Coldheart Canyon by Clive Barker has that sort of premise. Robin Hobb’s character Chade in The Farseer Trilogy has some backstory about how he was once handsome, and admittedly vein, and ruined his face in an accident, and it was the start of his reclusive life as an assassin. Whether the staple of the story or some character backstory, a character dealing with disfigurement is often a person far more real than the average staple of romantic/erotic fiction.
I had one character in another story, whose body I took within a saliva-thin thread of its life and put through several rounds of major surgery, see his reflection for the first time in months and stop dead at how his face was the one part of him that didn’t have a scar on. He does think to thank a crash helmet for that, and to reflect on how he scratched someone else’s face while thrashing about on his hospital bed. Sometime a character’s looks staying the same can have as much impact as changing them. Remember: it’s your wreckage. Unlike real life, you as the author get to decide what survives it intact.
So what do I do with Oscar’s physical and metaphorical wreckage? Simple: I’m going to give him a second chance he probably doesn’t deserve and then take the reader through a journey about whether or not he eventually earns it. What are the stakes, and what’s the ‘nothing’ this time? Simple: if he sinks his second go, he won’t be getting another one. Not when his next boyfriend and the people who surround him are shape-shifting killing machines anyhow, but that’s for another day….
So I’ve set up this character I like in many ways, and made him do things I don’t, and ended up feeling a little sorry and a little disgusted. I’ve done it by inverting a cliché or two, doing the reverse of what might be expected, putting my character in danger, making the nothing count, and forming a realistic and engaging train wreck. Then I do the salvage job. The result? Well, when I finish it, it will be another novel to bang a cover on, get edited, and offer up to some readers. Maybe someone will call me the E L James of sci-fi and give me a one star review or two. Or Oscar and Screft might rock their world. At least I gave it my best effort either way.
Over to you, constant reader. Have a go of your own.
But before you do, it would seem a little mean to have talked a lot about writing without actually giving an example of when I actually did some. Here’s a few ideas in this admittedly long two-part column. Thank you for getting this far. Have yourself a cookie. You deserve it. Enjoy me at my most shameless.
This excerpt contains violence, naughty words and references to sex. If I know my readership, that’s anything but a warning.
Oh yeah, and this is a first draft. Not perfect, this is just pure outpouring, warts and all. I’ll treat any feedback given like I would on Litreactor or any other online workshop. Any ‘critters’ out there who do feel like taking special time over this, great, and I do tend to review shorter stories or excerpts in return when that happens, as long as I have time.
* * *
An excerpt from Welcome to Sentago by Tommy Muncie
(This section begins with Oscar feeling a little under the weather at University. He’s sent Feldryn, his life partner, to the chemist for some meds, but Feldryn comes back with some slightly worrying news. And worry the pair of them should….)
‘Done panicking I’m going to die now?’ I said. ‘Go shopping or something. Those clothes you bought last week are looking out of fashion already.’
‘Very funny. I’ll go get you some tablets. Don’t you dare move from that bed, Oscar Murdoch. You go to class and I’ll spank you later no matter how sick you are.’
The last time he said those words I went to class and he made good on his promise. It was one of the best sessions we ever had together. Next day the cold was gone, no doubt from how he’d raised my core temperature another degree. I didn’t feel like that would work this time though. This wasn’t a cold. I already knew that. I was probably going to be shivering by the time he got back.
That’s why I ran the bath. As hot as I could get it without burning myself.
I wasn’t shivering when Feldryn got back and I was just about to strip off, but when he came in the room, I shivered then.
Feldryn never moved so slowly, never set a bag down on the table the way he did, never came into a room with me without looking at my before anyone else. Now he just stared at the walls.
‘What’s wrong?’ I said. ‘Fel? What happened? You get mugged for your wallet again?’
‘I’m not feeling so great myself,’ he said. ‘Thanks, I think I caught it from you.’
He looked like he had, but even with my brain dulled by the ache in it and my joints lethargic, I sat up in bed. The hour he’d been gone surely wasn’t enough to bring the symptoms of this on. I’d been going down with it for a day already.
‘Fel, why did it take you an hour just to go to the chemist ten minutes down the road? What’s really wrong?
‘Oscar, I….I need to ask you something. You remember that woman who used to work at the pool? Imelda somebody. She….’ he leaned against the wall and put his hands to his face.
‘Imelda Carrington? What about her?’
‘She was on the news this morning. She’s dead.’
Bile rose in my throat and my stomach didn’t implode so much as drop out of existence altogether and simply cease to exist. Imelda couldn’t be dead. What had she ever done to deserve…
My heart soon did the same thing as my stomach, as I stared at Feldryn and refused to let this whole situation make the sense it was starting to. ‘How did she die?’
‘Fel? Come on, talk to me. How did the news say she died?’
I’d never known a human being to actually go white before, but Feldryn’s face had gone from pale to the colour of my hair. ‘Tenrock’s disease.’
We both knew his next question. We both stayed quiet for about the same length of time I would have vomited if my legs could have run me to the bathroom. My limbs weren’t there either. This was practice for what was to come. Practice for none of me being there at all. All it would take was for my mind to go. It would probably take less than a week if…
…if nothing. This was fine. This was all fine. Let him ask that question. Maybe I could even answer before he-
‘Oscar, did you ever…I don’t care if you did. I never cared about anyone else you did. But I’ve got to know. Right now, please, just tell me the truth. Did you fuck Imelda Carrington?’
Feldryn took a deep breath. ‘Okay. So did you protect?’
‘You think I wanted kids with her?’
Feldryn didn’t sit down next to me so much as let his legs collapse under him with relief and somehow get his butt to the edge of the bed and get his arm around me. ‘That’s my Oscar. That’s my otter-boy. Oh thank God. Thank god thank god thank god! What a time to get sick, you scared the fucking fuck out of me!’ Feldryn was laughing now and punching me and knuckle-rubbing my head.
‘Fel could you knock it off? My whole body aches.’
‘Sorry. Oh man. I need a drink. I don’t care what time it is.’
With all the strength I had, I put my hands in his lap to hold him there next to me. ‘Fel, listen I….’
‘I think I should go to the hospital anyway.’
‘For a rotten dose of the flu? They’ll just tell you off for wasting their time. You’re okay. You’ve got nurse Feldryn at your service. I don’t have any classes to go to. I just came here for you.’ He leaned in and kissed me on the lips. ‘If you’re like this, you’re like this.’
‘Fel, you remember Arfeng Peterson? From my old club back in Sky City? He went to a hotel with Imelda too. I never protected with him. He was clean from everything else. He even showed me test results because he hated doing it with rubber and he wanted me to…never mind what I did for him. I need the hospital. Like right now.’
The look on his face, the silence in the room that wasn’t even broken by breathing…anyone would have thought Feldryn’s laughter had come out of him years ago and long since died into thin air.
‘Oscar, if this is a joke it’s not funny. I’m not going to laugh at this when you start sniggering and I’m not going to be turned on.’ He got up and stood over me. ‘Just stop it. Just tell me it’s a joke and we’ll forget you said it.’
‘It’s not a joke, it’s not a turn-on game, I’m being serious, I need to see a doctor.’
‘Don’t. It’s not like you never made a mistake.’
‘Arefeng Peterson?’ He bent almost double as he shouted, then walked across the room and banged his fists into the wall.
‘Cut this shit out right now,’ I said. ‘In case you hadn’t noticed, I might be a little bit sick right here. Remember that promise we made each other about sickness and health?’
‘Remember the promise about faithfulness and fucking honesty?’
‘Remember how when you asked me to be your life partner you didn’t care who else I was fucking?’
That stopped him. For just long enough for me to almost prevent everything we’d both regret for life from happening that morning, Feldryn was level-headed.
‘Okay,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry. I know what I said back then and nothing’s changed, and I’m sorry. But I wasn’t lying earlier; I’m not feeling so hot either. What if you’ve…..what if I caught it from you?’
‘Then we both need to just stay frosty and chill out for a minute and think about this without panicking,’ I said, although the rest of my body had been doing the reverse for far too long already. ‘We’re rich. Our families are rich. That means we can sort this out. Medical bills? Won’t matter in a couple of months; it’ll be just like paying for a cup of coffee to us. So it’s not going to be nice sorting this, but it’s going to be possible. We’ll be laughing this time next year when we remember this was the day. So I need you cool and I need you okay and we both need it now. Okay? Let’s get in a cab and get to the hospital and we’ll tell them everything.’
‘Right. Everything. Like you’ve ever told anyone everything.’
‘What did I just say about cool and okay? Being angry with me won’t help right now. Do that in a couple of weeks when we’ve both had a good rejuvenation and we’re both clean.’
‘Oscar, when you had my sister….just tell me you were safe then.’
‘Don’t, Fel. Not now.’
‘Just tell me you were safe.’
‘Oh for shit’s sake!’ I shouted. ‘You know what Feldryn? Fuck you. You’re the one who watched when she practically date raped me; you’re the one who gave her whatever she put in my drink and you’re the one who confessed later. I had about two brain cells that night and she fucked them clean out of me along with everything else. Because you wanted to see it. So you tell me if I went diving without a suit.’
Feldryn clenched up and glared at me so hard that when I think of that stare now and how it was enough to make me one step short of filling my pants with shit, I know he was really more disgusted with himself than he was with me.
All it took was knowing that he’d jerked off to the moment when I’d effectively killed his sister.
‘So you’ve got to tell her she needs a test and you’re probably paying for another set of treatment,’ I said. ‘Poor fucking you. Something’s actually your fault for a change.’
‘Do you know what this is going to do to us?’ Feldryn roared.
‘Yes. We’re in deep fucking shit. Do you hear me screaming about it? Get a hold of yourself!’
‘Get WHAT? I’m not the one who didn’t get himself tested.’
‘Tested? How many clean results did I show you without you having to even ask me to get a test in the first place? No hospitals offer a test for Tenrock’s. Newsflash you dumb motherfucker, nobody catches it now. You know how many decades it’s been since anyone in Sky City caught it let alone died of it?’
‘Do you even know what Tenrocks does, Oscar? Huh? Do you know what you’ve done to me? To yourself? Do you know that kind of pain…’
‘Yes, Feldryn, I do. I know. I know what Imelda would have spent the last two weeks of her life going through and it might surprise you but I’m not exactly looking forward to it either. Because I’m going to survive to remember what it felt like. And I’m already feeling it. So shut the fuck up and help me get to the hospital; I don’t think I can walk. I might just make it to that doorway if you’re lucky.’
What Feldryn did next will haunt me for the rest of my life. Haunt me because I know what people mean when they say that sociopaths are good at controlling rage. Feldryn wasn’t a sociopath, but just like anyone who ever got so angry that they did something sudden and stupid, he found that moment where for just long enough, he could have empathised with one.
The way he came and sat on the bed again, calm and controlled and his body responding to him this time, was his first few seconds in that moment. The way he put a hand on the back of my neck and then rubbed it down my back for comfort were the next few. His smile, the way he said sorry to me again, the promise that he still loved me and he’d keep all the promises we’d made a few months ago as well, that had me believing he meant it all, that he was going to lift me up and carry me outside and get us a ride to the hospital and this would all finish up as one horrible accident that we got through and it cemented our love for each other for good.
When the roundhouse punch he swung landed his knuckles on my mouth, I probably should have been thankful, because my life partner was mad enough with me to end all those promises by ending my life, and that punch said it so his mouth didn’t have to.
So did the next one he drove into my right eye, and the one after that on my jaw, then everything after that against my ribcage and finally the one in my stomach, emptying everything I’d forced down earlier out of my mouth and up the wall.
‘Why don’t I just let the Tenrock’s do the rest, huh?’ Feldryn shouted, holding his right hand that was already swelling up with broken bones in all his fingers. ‘Why don’t I just lock that door and leave you without enough strength to bang on it while you just waste away right here? That easy enough for you, you cheating son of a bitch?’
Now he picked me up. Now he was going to carry me out of here, having had his moment. Except he was still having it. Still having it to the tune of carrying me into the bathroom. To the bath that we might have shared while the water took the ache from my bones and I let him indulge that nurse role-play in the water instead of on the bed. He dumped me into the water from so high up that the water no longer cushioned me from the bottom of the tub.
‘You like water, otter-boy? Well let’s see if you really can breathe like one. How long was it you said they could go under for? Twenty minutes? Okay, let’s do it.’
I had no time to protest before he shoved my head under and jumped in the bath tub on top of my back, pinning me right under. I didn’t count seconds, I simply threw all the strength I had into trying futilely to buck him off me. When I found myself breathing again, I heard his voice but words wouldn’t reach me through the water in my ears or the sound of my pounding heartbeat through them.
‘You hear me yet? Huh? That was thirty seconds. Let’s see if you can make a minute this time.’
This time, I inhaled and choked and when he brought me up again I was coughing so hard I expected to see blood splashed in front of me when my vision came back. Except it never came back.
The third time, Feldryn gave me two minutes.
The third time, the grip on my right wrist loosened enough for me to pull an arm free, the strength no longer coming from anywhere I knew about. Just like the fight against fatigue when swimming 200 lengths to get 5000 metres, except this time my life depended on it. This time I threw my arm out and backwards like that one hit had to count or I’d be dead.
Feldryn’s shriek was the sound of me saving my own life without knowing how. Until the grip on me vanished and a splashing of water later I was on my back in the bath and looking at Feldryn trying to get to the sink, clutching at his eye. I pulled myself out of the bath and on to the floor, coughing and choking and crawling my way to the door, and when I found myself on my feet with the doorframe as my balance and Feldryn still clutching his eye and screaming and blood coming through his fingers, I stepped back to the sink, grabbed him around his neck with my arm and pulled as hard as I could.
We both fell to the floor, my consciousness only just holding and my eyes already whited out with the pain of the hot bathwater and the boiling temperature of my body behind them, but I still pulled and pulled and Feldryn thrashed all around me, until I had no strength left, and when I let him go and collapsed backwards, I heard him gasping just like I was and his weight rolled off me.
Then there was the sobbing. I’d never seen Feldryn cry with happiness or sadness, and I still couldn’t see it, but now I heard it. Then I felt his arms around me but my body didn’t have enough left in it to respond to the panic. So I lay there, and instead of what was sure to finish off what little remained of my life, there was Feldryn stroking my hair and holding my head against his chest and telling me how sorry he was and he would never forgive himself and please please would I never tell a living soul about what had just happened.
When I threw up all the water I’d swallowed, he had enough sense to help me sit forward and whack me on the back when I choked.
‘It’s okay,’ I said. ‘It’s okay Feldryn. Just kill me. Just finish it right here. I don’t want to go through this. I can’t go though this.’
Feldryn was still sobbing and clutching me against himself. ‘What the fuck are we gonna do?’ He screamed, his head thrown back and his mouth to the ceiling.
I wouldn’t have thought of an answer even if the front door of our room hadn’t crashed in, and security and the two girls from the room next door came in to see us both on the floor.
The pouring, bloody circle in the top of Feldryn’s head, I later found out, still did contain what was left of his eyeball. It would never have given him any sight again, but no matter. They’d grow a new one and implant it for him.
As it turned out, Feldryn ended up with a whole new body. He died in Ardoghtix general two weeks later, during the stage of Tenrock’s disease that I came through by the skin of my teeth. The medical team had enough sense to lie to me at the time and tell me he’d come through it as well. No matter what he’d done to me, I was glad.
I was overjoyed. Things were actually going to turn out okay.
They might have been, if it hadn’t been for the forty-eight others I’d infected.
* * *
The doctor at the hospital didn’t judge. She simply asked the questions and figured out what she had to do to keep me alive. If only so I could answer for what I now knew I’d done.
They treated me for my life partner’s handiwork first. It wasn’t lost on me that everyone wore more protective clothing and gloves and masks than I’d ever seen before while they did it.
Feldryn was with me, against everyone’s advice not to let him anywhere near. He wasn’t going to touch me, but I wanted him there. If only so he could listen to what I knew was coming.
‘Oscar,’ the doctor said, ‘how many people have you had sex with since you had it with Imelda Carrington?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘Three dozen. Maybe four.’
The doctor put a Unipocket in front of me. ‘I’m going to need a list of names. Everyone you can remember. Even if you’re not sure and you think you might have had sex with someone, write them down. We’re going to need to talk to everyone you can remember. Mr Lightfoot, I’m going to need the same from you.’
‘And then the same from everyone Oscar lists, and everyone I list, and everyone they fucking list,’ Feldryn said.
‘I’ll give you two as long as you need but I’m staying in the room,’ the doctor said. ‘And security are right outside it.’
‘It’s fine,’ Feldryn said. ‘We’re cool.’ He put a hand on the table, obviously hoping I’d out mine on it, but I didn’t. ‘Oscar, I’m sorry. I know I can’t exactly prove that right now and I’ve got a hell of a lot of making up to do but-’
He took notice of me when I said it that time. I started writing my list. I’d said ‘maybe four’ just to spite Feldryn, but when I finished the list and added another two uncertains for good measure, it actually did come out at forty-eight names. I knew Feldryn was reading it. That’s why I left his sister until last, and pretended I’d only just remembered, just as the doctor was about to take the UniPocket away from me.
‘Forty-nine people?’ Feldryn said. ‘Forty-nine?’
His own list contained four.
‘I’m not sure about all of them,’ I said. ‘Just doing what the doctor said. That last name on there doc, I’m not so sure about that one. I think I was just drunk that night.’
‘I hope the Tenrock’s kills you,’ Feldryn said. ‘I hope you die in pain. When this is over, we’re getting an annulment.’
‘This will never be over,’ I said. ‘Why do you think you’re sitting there with fresh shit in your pants? How’s the eye feeling, by the way? And just before you kick off and security come in, if I die in pain then what are you going to need the annulment for? And you’ll probably laugh, but I hope I do die. You’re my life partner. You’re now my life widower. You’re the one who gets the bill for everyone who sues us for what I’ve done.’
To my surprise, he didn’t go for me. He just sat there and let me have the last word. His own last word was going to be living when I didn’t. That’s what his eyes said.
Sorry Feldryn. You lose.
It was just like swimming in the end: I always beat him.
* * *
The Tenrock’s wasted my immune system in a fortnight.
Rebuilding it kept a team of immunologists and disease control doctors working round the clock in shifts to come up with the micromorphs to plant inside me. They got there just in time. Something as complex as an entire human body’s immune map, they told me, can be mapped out using the best medical computers available, but it takes human programming to tell them how to work, how to interpret, how to analyse the data. Formulating the various proteins that create the micromorphs and getting them to go to the right parts of my body and solve the problems that no medical team could have factored in….
You get the idea. It’s a treatment as near to the impossible as you could ask for. The kind that makes medical teams go drinking for a weekend straight once they’ve cracked it. All to save one person’s wretched life.
I wish I could say that I was pleading for them not to bother, but they would have ignored me even if I had. My parents would have made sure of it, for one thing. They were there right from the start, promising they wouldn’t let me die, promising it didn’t matter how much that round the clock team were going to put on a hospital bill at the end of it.
Promising it wasn’t my fault. For a while, I almost believed them.
The rash that Feldryn noticed on my arms turned out to be something bit different from a common skin infection. I couldn’t blame the doctor I saw about it: by all accounts, I hadn’t been in any situation where I could have contracted a necrotising bacteria. Nor one as rare as the ones that moved slowly. Necros were usually voracious, apart from just a few strains that liked to take their time over the feast that was the human subcutaneous tissue. So where did I get it?
My life partner’s sleeping bag. Left on the wrong rock in the wrong mountains, during the last holiday we had before term started again. Turned out Feldryn had it too. Apparently, the tourist industry took a bit of a plunge in sales once the news feeds got word that someone had caught whatever this little skin-guzzling bastard was called in the Tanamarg mountain ranges.
It should just have caused a couple of weeks in a quarantined room for me and a bit of a skirmish at the campus with anyone who had brushed skin with me queueing for the med centre. Not combined with the Tenrock’s though. The doctors described it as a combination of illnesses that were akin to a genocidal dictator marrying a weapons of mass destruction expert.
Tenrock’s doesn’t just waste the immune system at a rate hundreds of times faster than other immunodeficiency viruses, it takes everything that’s attacking and helps it on its way by letting cells merge and mutate to create a super-virus.
My medical team deserved any prestigious prize I could have named for working on me and Feldryn. We were being literally eaten from the inside out and the outside in all at the same time.
The feeling of that hamstring pull I once had happened all over my body. No amount of soothing creams or painkillers would dull it down. No sleep, no ability to switch my brain off in any way. Remembering how Imelda’s fingers had once stopped my pain and trying to will my body to create that feeling only made it worse. After nearly a week of not sleeping the delusions began, and I swore I could here the microscopic fuckers nibbling, munching at every nook and cranny of my body. Just like I’d imagined back in Imelda’s office, but this time they were hellbent on destroying their host instead of curing one muscle. I was a feast.
Necrosis stinks. Ever had a sewage pipe burst in your town? Imagine that smell is you. What it feels like while you’re creating it? Try taking a bath in a hot tub filled with napalm.
Nobody would ever sleep with me again knowing I’d gone through this, and I’d never wish myself on anyone. That was the thought that really made me scream for death: if I lived I’d probably never even want to jerk off again.
By the end of the fortnight I couldn’t scream because I couldn’t breathe. There wasn’t enough left of my lung tissue or muscles to draw in any air, let alone get it to my bloodstream. The way I dealt with remembering the pain later started with displacing pain with just plain strangeness: the ability to be alive without my lungs breathing and not feel like I was choking. Machines supplied my oxygen and my brain fed off it just like normal.
Hold your breath. Just try it, right now. Imagine you can keep on doing that but the desperation to breathe again never kicks in. I spent nearly a month just like that, while the micromorphs rebuilt most of the inside of my torso. The artificial heart they’d put me on whirred and clicked and I imagined that sound going on inside my chest on at a micro-level.
They hooked me up to a system that gave me a temporary mock-Talent mod, so I could move pictures on a screen just by thinking and talk to the med team and any visitors. That’s when Mum and Dad brought Tarin, who managed to spend an hour with me and then spent the rest of the day crying like a child who’d hidden behind a chair to watch a horror film and ended up needing therapy for weeks afterwards. He didn’t come again after that; he talked to me through the Pocketsphere instead.
When the day came that I woke up and found my chest rising and falling with air again, my family were all there, along with their tears of relief and the closest thing they could get to hugs. My muscles felt like moving by then too, so I just about managed to give them one back. Three months after that morning with Feldryn, I was almost ready to leave hospital, but I needed to go on a re-feeding program and put on enough weight first.
I didn’t want to talk, and neither did my family. That day, we just hugged and smiled and for just a few minutes I really believed that the entire nightmare was over. They left me alone in the room with the Pocketsphere and its millions of games and rooms to amuse myself with, but I didn’t touch it. I just lay there, wiggling my feet and smiling at them and thinking about how Imelda, who had rubbed them so caringly, hadn’t made it to this stage. Happiness and sadness combined were a hypnotic kind of limbo. I must have tranced myself out to the movement of my own feet for hours.
The scars from the necrosis were gone from them. It took me hours just to get that one simple thought, and then what felt like another hour to strip my hospital pyjamas off and get a look at myself. I was almost as perfect as when I started, and I thanked any supernatural power or being I’d ever heard of that my family and my life partner and his family were rich.
I deserved to be alive after all. Because I’d planned for something like this happening to me without really knowing I had, as if I’d said yes to Feldryn’s proposal that day because I really had realised money could get you out of just about anything.
That’s when I started talking, for the first time since the doctor told me the micromorphs had rebuilt my larynx. I’d resisted ‘Would you like to talk to us, Oscar?’ for a week after that, as if silence were a way of keeping my fugue state because I was bordering on enjoying it. Now I wanted to talk.
Now I made the mistake of asking how Feldryn was.