Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Nerve Interpreter, Chapter 1


Just as we’re about to exit the house, I lose control of my head for the third time: it drops to my chest, I lose contact with my headswitch, and my wheelchair slows to a stop halfway over the threshold of the door.

I let out a long breath, staring down at my lap as my head lolls, and feeling the pressure of anger building in my chest. “Joel,” I say, “can you go and get the neck brace, please?”

“Okay,” he says, but before he goes, I see his square fingertips approaching my chin, to help me tip my head up again.

“No,” I say, before he can make contact, “I’ll try myself.”

His fingers withdraw, he says “Okay” again, and I hear his footsteps receding toward my bedroom.

I stare down at my hands, one palm up and knocking its back against my thigh, the other palm down and shaking from side to side, fingers and thumb stiffly extended downward. My head bobs on my bent neck, immune to my internal litany: Up. Pick it up. Pick it up. Pick it up. It’s 8:30 in the morning, on a day that I’ve been waiting for for months, and I already feel defeated.

Joel’s footsteps approach again, just as I finally recover control of my neck and heavily lift my head back into position against the cradling headrest. In my lap, my hands twitch and tap. I swallow and watch out of the corner of my eye as Joel approaches with the padded beige brace, fits it into place around my neck and velcros it shut. His weathered face is neutral, workmanlike; he’s let a couple days’ worth of pale gray stubble grow in.

“Yup,” I say when he looks at me to check comfort. He nods, I press my head back against the center switch again, and we move off. I hate how secure the brace makes me feel.

We make it onto the 8:45 commuter rail train without further incident. Once we’re situated, Joel tucks my right arm back onto my lap – sometime in the past five minutes, it had made its way over the armrest to flop against the side of my chair – snaps my phone into its mount on my armrest, and fits my wireless earbuds into my ears. He taps the phone screen into life for me to check music selection. Currently on the display is Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues.

“Kind of on the nose, don’t you think?” I say to him, and am surprised by how much better it makes me feel to smile, even sardonically.

He snorts, smiling back briefly.

I address my phone: “Sam, please play Fiona Apple.” I watch as the display registers the command, blinks over to Fiona. Meanwhile, Joel settles back for the ride. He’s by far my favorite aide because he is so capable of silence – although my mom worries that it “exaggerates my tendencies.” What “tendencies”? I shoot back at her, whenever she tries to bring it up. It’s too convenient, how much my sharpness can still take her aback, send her retreating into hurt silence. We’re both sensitive, finely attuned to each other’s moods and motivations; but I’m the only one hard enough, self-interested enough, to use it against the other.

I know, for example, that when she goes silent in moments like that, she’s thinking: At least he’s still seeing his therapist. And I know that she’s blaming herself for not being able to make me better, happier, herself.

I register the fact that the thirty-something, pencil-skirted woman in the seat across from Joel and me has been staring at me for the past few minutes. I move my gaze to her and stare back evenly; she immediately drops her eyes away, turning red and tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. I shift my chin against the neckbrace to look out the window, and watch as the fields, sparse woods, and occasional suburban houses slide by outside. Whenever I feel anticipation lifting in my chest at the thought of what might happen next, I force my breaths to stay smooth, deliberate, pressing back against anything like excitement, optimism.

Sometime later, I’ll say to Paul, or dream of saying it: What I want is a sense of containment.

We arrive at the university campus. I like it here, the luxuriously wide paths cutting smoothly through well-tended lawns, the elms and oaks rustling overhead. It’s especially nice during the summer, when students are sparse – just occasional figures glimpsed in the distance – and the columned brick buildings seem temple-like, reserved, calm. I can’t help but relax as I cruise down the slope towards the neuroscience institute; in moments like these, with the warm, humid air rushing by, the random motions of my arms and hands feel more expressive, as if they’re moving with me, not against me.

It’s a space that I inhabit only briefly, and when the sense, the impression of integrity, passes, I don’t like thinking about it.

I function in spite of my body, I told my therapist once; I planted a flag there, then, and have yet to shift it, despite her best efforts, and my mother’s, otherwise.

Spite is a sharp word, a strong word.

The neuro building is at the bottom of the hill; a pair of women drinking coffee on a bench outside watch curiously as I skim by and Joel hits the handicapped button by the glass doors for me. Despite my best efforts, my heartbeat is rising in my chest, and the motions of my hands accelerate. The back of my right hand slaps repeatedly against the base of the armrest, until Joel moves it for me so that I can hold it captive, at least temporarily, in between my thighs. I thank him with my eyes. As he hits the up button on the lobby elevator, even my feet start pawing against the footplates, my upper body slumps inwards against my chest strap, and, regretfully, I know I was right to ask Joel to get the neckbrace for me.

We ride up to the fourth floor, take a left – even with the neckbrace, it takes me a moment to roll my head enough to press against the left headswitch – and find the doctors waiting for us outside of the Field lab.

Dr. Dani Field, Ph.D., is a mechanical engineer by training, who shifted into biomechanics during her graduate degree, with a further detour into machine learning during her postdoc. I have read all of this on her lab website, over and over again, clicked on each of her academic publications, even read each of her three students’ bios, examined their photos, too; she has a small lab, a young lab, I’ve inferred. She’s a little older than me, in her mid-30’s: a small, wiry woman with a small, square face, large dark brown eyes, sparse freckles, crinkly light-brown hair pulled back into a little tuft of a ponytail.

Dr. Paul Zhou is the neurologist; as an undergraduate, he stumbled into taking, and later returned to TA, a class on assistive technology, an experience that his online bio describes as “formative.” He’s a bit older than Dr. Field, maybe early 40’s at the most, a trim Asian man with an angular, tapering face, very thick dark brows, thick hair swept back. His gaze, and his posture, are intensely still. I feel a sudden sense of gravity when I see him.

“Matthew? Good morning!” Dr. Field says, giving a little wave; I recognize her pleasantly raspy voice from the couple of phone calls we’ve had. “It’s so exciting to finally meet you.”

“Good morning,” Dr. Zhou echoes, almost in a murmur.

“Good morning, Dr. Field, Dr. Zhou,” I return after a moment of struggle; if I didn’t have the neck brace, my head would be on my chest again, and my speech is more slurred than usual, my tongue thick and uncooperative. “This is my aide, Joel.” From my peripheral vision, I can see Joel nodding a hello to them. I am almost overwhelmingly nervous now. I want to say something more about how excited I am, something gracious and encouraging, but all I can do is smile back as my body flails around me; my right hand has escaped from between my legs and is now waving in large arcs in front of my face.

“Come on, let’s go into the lab,” Dr. Field says, her smile small but bright; she steps back to open the door for me. I lean back against my headswitch.

Inside is a midsize room brightly lit with fluorescent lights, the walls lined with black-topped workbenches cluttered with tools, wiring, clear plastic bins of small electrical components; textbooks and notebooks sprawl on overhead shelving. Directly facing us is a workstation with two massive-screened Apple computers and steel arms holding aloft a couple of video cameras at different angles; the cameras’ lenses point at a smaller table whose surface is covered with large-gridded graph paper. Another woman, plump, with large quantities of curly black hair, is sitting with her back to us at one of the Apple computers, setting up an array of software windows. As we come in, she glances over her shoulder, and I recognize her as Priyanka, one of Dr. Field’s three grad students. “Hi!” she says abruptly, her eyes widening, almost as if we caught her doing something she wasn’t supposed to be doing.

Dr. Field puts a hand on her shoulder briefly, giving her an encouraging smile. “Matthew, this is my student Priya Chopra; she did most of the coding on the machine-learning side of things for this project, so she’s really excited to be working with you today.” Priya bobs her head, still looking nervous; I can’t tell if she’s worked up about the trial or just uncomfortable to be watching my body flail – both of my arms are waving back and forth now, at full extension – but the sense that it could genuinely just be the former puts me, relatively speaking, at ease. I remind myself that, at this point, Priya should have worked with a fair number of people who look like me.

Dr. Zhou goes to sit at the workstation with Priya, asking her a question in his almost-murmur; my gaze follows him, although Dr. Field is speaking to me now.

“Soooo…” she says, and when I look back at her hurriedly, I can tell she’s going through a mental checklist. “Let’s see. We have all of your paperwork in electronically. Great. I’m going to have to give you a bit of an orientation spiel, and I might end up repeating a lot of things we’ve already talked about, but it’s easiest for us if we know that everyone who comes in for their first trial is starting from the same page.” She looks to me for confirmation.

“Sounds good,” I say, and try to smile again through the nervousness, uncomfortably aware of the constant rustling and creaking as my body shakes my wheelchair, the occasional slaps as my hands or arms make contact with an armrest or my own body.

“So today,” she continues, “we’re going to trial your left arm. That –“ she points at the small graph-paper-covered table in front of the computers, “- is going to be your ‘landing pad.’ Can I ask you to move to a position where think you’d be able to rest your arm there reasonably comfortably, and then take off your shirt so we can get you prepped?”

I appreciate that she asks me instead of Joel. After I’ve maneuvered my chair into position alongside the table, I give him a nod, and he approaches, removes my neck brace, undoes my chest strap, gently captures my flailing arms to thread them behind him as best as can be managed. He leans me forward against his chest until he can reach behind me to grasp the bottom of my t-shirt and pull it up over my head. My arms are so nuts that I almost want to laugh as he patiently extracts them from the sleeves, but I can’t because I’m oppressed by my awareness of how politely Priya, and Dr. Zhou, are not-watching all of this happen.

Finally Joel lays me back against the seat, straps me in again, and I try to compose myself, think about a bigger picture than my exposed self, my thin, slumping torso. For science, Matthew, I think, only a little ironically.

Joel moves his hand to the neck brace that he’s set aside and looks at me questioningly. I ask Dr. Field, “Is it okay to have my neck brace on, or will it get in the way?”

“Hmmm… let’s start with it on and see how far we can get. Sounds good?”

“Sounds good.” Joel puts it back on for me, I thank him, and he moves back to sit in a chair that Dr. Field pulls out for him.

“Dr. Zhou will prep your arm, now. And I’ll give you the spiel.”

“Great.” I fight to take deep breaths. I think about what might or might not happen next. I think about whether my life might change, or not; and if so, how much, how soon. I think about whether it would be enough.


Continue to Chapter 2
Continue to Chapter 3 (end)

Conclusion to Santa Crush

So I'm posting the final chapter of Santa Crush, for those of you who didn't/couldn't purchase the full version online.  Thank you SO much for all the comments, supports, and reviews!  You guys are amazing, and I'm so thrilled you liked my little story.  So here is:

Chapter 7

Next Sunday, I'm going to start posting a brand new story!  Woo! 

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Sorry for the delay in posting the end of "Christmas Crush"

I first want to say I'm so sorry I haven't posted the final chapter for "Christmas Crush".  I've been really sick for the past week, pretty much stuck in bed with a fever and headaches.  I thought I was getting better a few days ago, but then I overdid it during a family visit (someone I hadn't seen in a long time) and I ended up back in bed for a couple of days.

I'm getting better and I really wanted to get the chapter posted today, but a friend and I are hosting a New Years Eve party together tomorrow and don't have time to sit down and write until that's over with.  Right now I'm just immensely relieved that I'm feeling good enough to do that and help my friend with the preparations.

So, Happy New Year - and see you in 2018 for the conclusion of "Christmas Crush".

-Mille

PS! I have plans for a sequel, but before start writing that I want to finish my unfinished stories here, "The Outsiders" and "Unexpected".

The Nerve Interpreter, Chapter 2


Dr. Zhou moves towards me with a bin of materials, glancing down to sort through them with one hand. He sits on a wheeled stool on the other side of the small table from me, puts on a pair of latex gloves, and looks for my permission before leaning forward to grasp my left wrist gently with one gloved hand. I try not to be too obvious about letting out a shaky breath as he coaxes my left arm into position on the table, easily containing its flailing. “Please let me know if I do anything that makes you uncomfortable,” he says in his soft voice, making direct eye contact with me for the first time since greeting me. I blink in confirmation, and he starts pulling materials out from the bin, setting them in order.

“So you,” Dr. Field says, “are going to be our first trial with a subject whose impairment is more on the severe end of the spectrum.” Her voice is matter-of-fact, yet warm. “We’ve seen great results, really exciting ones, with folks who came to us with lower levels of impairment, and those trials in turn gave us loads of data for improving Priya’s software.”

“Is it all people with athetoid?” I ask. I had been curious about this ever since I’d first submitted my answers to the detailed questionnaire about my mix of symptoms, range of movement, range of control.

“It’s a mix,” she says after a pause to think. “Mainly we’re looking for people without fixed contractures, because that really limits our ability to see short-term improvement, unfortunately – although obviously it’s something we’d be excited to work on in the longer term, restoring function…

“So, relative to the general population of people with cerebral palsy, people with athetosis, even ataxia, are probably going to end up overrepresented among our subjects,” she concludes, “since spasticity goes along with contractures so much more.”

Joel lets out a “hm” of interest.

Dr. Zhou signals to catch my attention, and shows an alcohol-soaked gauze pad to me in warning – I catch its sharp smell – before he starts briskly wiping down my whole arm, even my shoulder, with it. I blow out a puff of air when the chill of the evaporating alcohol hits and watch as the hairs on my arm stand up; my arm jerks back and forth weakly at the elbow, the only motion available since Dr. Zhou is still firmly anchoring my wrist.

“We can turn on a space heater for you if you need it,” he says, motioning to indicate one tucked under the table.

“That might be nice at some point,” I admit.

He nods and picks up a black Sharpie and a small plastic instrument, about the size of an electric razor, with two metal prongs: “I’m going to be locating major innervation sites now.” I nod against my neck brace, and as Dr. Field asks me about my physical condition today, and tells me about the data they’ll be collecting – video, nerve conduction, qualitative reports from me – Dr. Zhou proceeds to press the pronged instrument along my collarbone, shoulder, and arm, marking occasional sites of contact with Sharpie dots. Some places, he follows up by attaching a little electrode. Others, some even on my hand, he marks with round, bright blue stickers – “That’s for motion analysis of the videos later,” Priya surprises me by putting in. She’s finished up at the computer, and has scooted over on another stool to watch the preparations.

I’m surprised by the realization that at this point, my self-consciousness has drained away. I feel centered and expectant. Dr. Zhou’s methodical work, Dr. Field’s questions and descriptions have been absorbing; the underlying excitement and anticipation in the room is palpable, and infectious. As if aware that it’s not in the spotlight, my right arm has calmed and lies limply in my lap, shaking only occasionally.

“Priya,” Dr. Field says, “while Dr. Zhou is getting the device in place, do you want to give Matthew a rundown of how your program works?”

Priya’s face lights up; “Sure,” she says.

“So you can think of it as two parts, or two functions,” she begins, scooting forward on her stool till she’s more comfortably in my field of view; I give a small smile of appreciation. “One is subtractive, a filter. It looks at the nerve impulses that your brain is trying to send, and kind of cleans up –“ she makes a brisk sweeping gesture “— all the things that are confusing or off-base.”

“Okay,” I say, glancing down to my left arm, which Dr. Zhou has temporarily released; it flops and twists at random against the tabletop. There’s a lot of confusing things going on there.

Priya’s eyes have remained on my face. “So the filter part does its best to make sure the confusing signals don’t actually get executed. If you know how noise-cancelling headphones work, it’s actually kind of similar…”

“Destructive interference?” I guess, reaching for high school physics – wave forms colliding and cancelling each other out.

“Oh, yes, exactly!” She looks delighted, and I get to feel good about myself. She adds, “Well, it’s a bit different with nerve signals instead of sound waves – and it’s called ‘collision annihilation,’ which I think sounds much more exciting.”

I smile; it does sound like something that would happen in outer space.

“Okay,” Priya says, visibly pulling herself back on-track when it’s clear she’d love to dive more into the details. “The second part of the program is additive – it strengthens. After the filter has done its work, it takes what’s there, it identifies your intent, basically – “ she sets one fist out to symbolize “intent” – “and reinforces it.” Now she clasps her other hand over the fist, building on it. “And that’s based on all the data we’ve collected from subjects with no impairment. So,” she sums up with a shy grin, “ideally, no more bad signal, all good signal. And the best part is that with Dr. Field and Dr. Zhou’s hardware, we can do it all noninvasively.”

I swallow thickly, pause for a moment. “I’m getting so excited that I don’t really know what to say,” I say finally, with a level of honesty that I would usually avoid. That gets a chuckle from most everyone in the room; Dr. Zhou gives me a surprisingly broad smile as he leans forward and begins strapping a set of small black devices to my shoulder, one just beneath the end of my collarbone, the other in a corresponding position on the back of my shoulder. They’re unexpectedly heavy, and I feel a chill as an array of blunt metal prongs in their surfaces make contact with my skin. I imagine that I feel a tingle of electrical current.

“This is a weaker version of what we would be able to do,” he puts in, “if we actually implanted electrodes. But, obviously, there are trade-offs there.”

Do it to me, I want to say. Give me implants. Fix me. But I say nothing.

I can just barely see over the edge of my neck brace that, to finish arranging the devices, Dr. Zhou will have to harness them around my chest, too. He looks to me. “Do you mind if I unstrap you, or would you prefer if Joel…?”

“You can do it,” I say boldly, making eye contact. He looks at me for a moment, during which I can’t read his expression, before he carefully opens my chest strap, leans me forward to secure the devices’ black harness around my back, and then redoes the strap, settling me back in place.

“Okay,” he says, extending a couple of long leads from each of the devices and handing them to Priya, who eagerly plugs them into what looks like a hard drive; the leads from the white electrodes scattered across my arm, he plugs into yet another device. I’d feel nervous about the assortment of trailing wires if it weren’t clear that they’re long enough that even I wouldn’t be able to yank them out.

“Okay, one more thing.” Dr. Zhou turns back, fixes his dark gaze on me. “Matthew, we’re going to be asking you to try a lot of movement with your left arm. Would it be more comfortable, less distracting for you, if we secured your right arm?”

I grimace. “Probably, yeah.”

“Okay. We have a cuff, here –” he shows me a broad Velcro strap.

“That should be fine,” I say shortly, and he moves around the table to cuff my right arm to its armrest at the wrist.

Having my arms strapped is actually something that I’ve gone back and forth on, in my life; for the past couple of years, I’ve been going without, in a concession to the ongoing campaign to convince me to act like I don’t entirely resent my body.

“I think,” Dr. Zhou says, “we’re ready to go.”

“Oh, my,” Dr. Field says, and she actually clasps her hands together with excitement; I kind of think that I might do that too, if I could. Joel leans forward in his seat, resting his elbows on his knees.

“Everything’s ready to record,” Priya says, the shy grin back on her face.

“Okay, okay,” says Dr. Field, pushing back tendrils of her hair excitedly, and stepping forward to stand next to Dr. Zhou across the table from me. “Matthew, we’re going to start with some baseline recordings of your natural movement.” It’s not natural, I want to say, but again don’t. “You’ll see a line of large black dots on the graph paper on that table. Can you please do your best to line your arm up with those dots? Whatever you can do; there’s no ‘wrong’ here, we’re just collecting information.”

I take a deep breath. Once more, my heart is pounding. While finishing up with the devices, Dr. Zhou had moved my thin left arm – now spotted with white electrodes and blue stickers – back to my lap. Let’s go, I say to myself, and seize the fraction of control available to me to lift that arm towards the table.

It arrives above the table and gets stuck there, flailing back and forth horizontally about a dozen times before I can convince it to flop to the table’s surface, where it continues shaking back and forth, at least roughly centered above the axis marked out by the black dots. “Is this what you’re looking for?” I say, trying not to sound too sarcastic.

“Yes,” Dr. Field says, “that’s great, thank you. Now I’m going to ask you to try to touch each of the large red dots that you see at the corners of the table.”

Again I try, and manage to sort of swipe the back of my hand over the first dot, but get stuck there, and can’t for the life of me coax my hand, or arm, to shift to the other corner; at this point my arm might as well not belong to me. “Not happening,” I say tensely, watching my arm thump against the first dot.

“That’s fine,” Dr. Field says, her voice soft and neutral. “We’ll do a few more of these –“ and she leads me through about a half a dozen more exercises, while Dr. Zhou explains that they’re isolating horizontal motion, vertical motion, motions of the hand, elbow, etc. “Isolating” seems like a more than generous way of characterizing it when my body is involved; it can’t have been more than five minutes, but I’m straining both my concentration and my meager physical endurance to the limit trying to accomplish anything resembling what they’re asking for. The more they ask of me, the sloppier and sloppier my motions grow, increasingly random; even my right arm strains and twists against its Velcro cuff.

“Whew,” says Dr. Field finally, “do you need a break?”

“Yes,” I admit, relaxing back against my chair.

“Would you like the space heater on?” Dr. Zhou adds, and I look at him gratefully, suddenly aware that I’m in an uncomfortable state of being both chilled and sweaty with tension and exertion, and conscious of the strange sensation of the devices pressing into my shoulder heavily from both sides.

“Yes, please.”

I hear him flick the switch on with his foot, and I relax further as the heat washes over me, drying the sweat on my exposed chest.

“You’re doing great,” he says, something that I would normally bristle at – I hate being praised for things that shouldn’t be difficult – but here, from him, I can’t be irritated about it.

“Thanks,” I say. “Would you mind moving my arm back to my lap for me?”

He stands up and shifts it carefully for me, and before I realize it I’ve closed my eyes. Just for half a minute, I tell myself; I need to compose myself.

“Okay,” I say, and open my eyes again. “Thanks. What’s next?”

“Next,” Dr. Field says, “we try the device.”

My heart skips. Externally, all I do is nod a little bit against my neck brace.

“We’re going to take a staged approach,” she says, looking to Priya to continue.

Priya explains, her hands already moving to the computer’s keyboard, “It’ll help you acclimate, and it’ll tell us how well each part of the program is working for you. So, we’re going to start by switching on just the first part, the filter.”

“The clean-up crew?” I suggest.

“Right.” She smiles. “We’ll need your arm on the table again. Would you like…” she looks to Dr. Zhou, as if he’s the only one who has permission to touch me.

“Yes please,” I say, and he leans over again to lift my arm to the tabletop. By my standards, it’s basically still now, from exhaustion, just lifting once in a while to knock limply against the table.

“Okay,” says Priya, “ready? You’re going to feel –”

“What will I feel?” I say hurriedly, at the same time.

After a nervous chuckle, she regroups and says, looking embarrassed, “Actually we’ve been told it’s hard to explain. The range of descriptions we’ve heard has gone from, um, ‘very quiet’ to ‘alive.’” She pauses to let me think about it. “But you will definitely feel a bit of electrical current, and the units –” she points at the devices on my shoulder “— will heat up a little.”

“Uhhh… well, okay. Shoot, then, I guess.”

She clicks her mouse, and I brace myself.

There’s a little electrical zing on both sides of my shoulder, and a sensation like a trickle of cold water running down the inside of my arm, all the way down to each of my fingertips. “Huh,” I can’t help saying, and then I feel something I’ve never felt before.

For the first time in my waking life, I feel my left arm go still. This is not just a pause, a breath in between one random gesture and another; it’s really still.

It’s as if someone has been constantly been playing, during every waking moment of my life, an annoying radio talk show somewhere in the background, sometimes loud, sometimes quiet, sometimes even silent for five or ten or fifteen seconds, but the chattering voices are always, always ready to cut in again, shatter the silence.

I wait. And I wait. I hear a full minute tick by on the clock on the wall. And my arm doesn’t move. It doesn’t move.

For the first time in my life, I feel a sense of control.

When I realize that, when the thought crystallizes, a bright surge of adrenaline, endorphins, something, goes straight to my head, and my vision almost fades out white. I have to catch my breath.

“Matthew?” Dr. Zhou is saying softly. “What are you feeling?”

I take another breath. “Control,” I say finally, and blink until I can focus on their faces again.

They’re all watching me, Dr. Zhou, Dr. Field, Priya, and Joel. Most of them have one hand pressed to their mouth, and I have to laugh, embarrassed, giddy.

“You can put another check in the ‘quiet’ adjective box for me, too,” I add. I take slow breaths through my nose. I just sit there, feeling, feeding every ounce of attention into my left arm. It feels calm, ready; I repeat that impression out loud, too.

After another moment, it’s as if everyone in the room lets out a collective breath; we’re ready for what will come next. Dr. Field shifts from foot to foot, links her hands and stretches them out in front of her. Her eyes glint with excitement. Dr. Zhou watches me gravely, the side of one hand still pressed against his mouth. He leans forward slightly.

This time, Dr. Zhou takes me through the same series of exercises that Dr. Field first asked of me, to see what I can do under my own power, minus the effects of my athetoid. Though adrenaline has sent a new jolt of energy through me, my movements are weak, tentative, uncoordinated. My arm moves limply and mostly from the shoulder. I’ve never had more occasion to appreciate exactly how little muscle mass I have, or how unused I am to using my elbow or wrist.

And my fingers remain loosely curled; I still can’t control them, open or close them; my brain just can’t see a way to do it. (Can even the second part of Priya’s program fix that?)

But I can move. I can move – of my own volition. Most of the targets, I hit after only a couple of tries. And for the first time in my life, every reminder of what I can’t do – it expands, explodes into a hope of what I could do, if I had the device, if I had time, if I had practice and physical therapy...

“That was great,” Dr. Zhou says at the end, and he sits back and runs both of his hands through his hair, the most spontaneous gesture I’ve seen him make so far. He’s not exactly smiling, but, like Dr. Field, there’s a light in his eyes.

I say nothing, still just feeling. I feel flushed, and my pulse runs quickly and lightly inside of me. I want more.

It can’t be soon enough that Priya says, “Ready for Phase 2?”

I say something that people find funny, because they laugh, but I’ve forgotten it as soon as I say it, because my mind is so bent on what must come next.

Priya turns back to the computer. I watch her as she types a couple of brief lines into some kind of terminal window, hits enter a couple of times. That’s all she does. But she tells me that it’s running, the second part of the program.

I sit and stare down at my arm, extended palm-up on the tabletop, looking pale and profoundly unnatural with all of the circles marking it, the thin trailing white and blue wires. My fingers are loosely curled inwards.

I don’t feel any different; the devices, heavy and heated on my shoulder, don’t feel any different. There’s no new jolt of electrical sensation; my arm doesn’t quiver with new energy.

But I sit and think about what it would be like to open my hand. I think about the thousand, thousand times that I’ve watched other people do it – gesturing, reaching, waving, stretching, patting, resting – and I think about what it might feel like to do it.

And then I do: I do open my hand. I watch as my fingers stretch out, all together, coordinated, smooth. I let them stay like that for a few seconds, feeling the subtle tension running up from the tendons in my wrist out through the core of each finger.

I watch as they – I – close my fingers again, bring them in slowly to make a fist. I watch as my thumb pulls in alongside those fingers, wraps around them, because I want it to.

I’ve been holding it back for what must be the past hour now, but that, finally, is when I start crying.



Friday, December 29, 2017

The Nerve Interpreter, Chapter 3 (end)


“People love telling you that cerebral palsy isn’t progressive,” I tell Dr. Zhou. “What is progressive is having a shitty, weak body.” We’re sitting at the edge of a shingle beach, at a table for two, under a sky burgeoning with soft grey clouds. The green-grey sea moves with fitful cross-currents from the wind. I hold the stem of my wineglass precisely between thumb and fingertip, rolling it back and forth slowly.

“That’s true, if to varying extents, for all of us,” Dr. Zhou – Paul – says. His eyes are as serious as always, but there’s a hint of a smile on his lips. “I still remember what the page of my high school biology textbook looked like, where I first had it pointed out to me that we start dying as soon as we start living.”

None of this is real. This is what I imagine for myself, somewhere between sleeping and waking. This is what I do for myself.

“Some of us less slowly than others,” I remind him.

He watches me as the wind moves his hair, and I continue. “I didn’t used to need a chest strap. Or the neck brace.” Since this is a dream, I don’t need to say these things to him as if I need to prove myself; except there is still a piece of that of that in there.

“Two years ago, I got some kind of viral infection. On top of the headaches and fever and shit, I started having trouble swallowing. I should have gotten more scared than I did, because within a couple of days I had to be intubated, the works.

“Like two days after getting out of the hospital for the first time, I aspirated food and ended up with pneumonia. Back into the hospital. Altogether I was basically in the hospital for seven months. I lost like twenty, twenty-five pounds. By the end of the year, I’d lost – of course – all of the clients I was doing freelance work for.

“When I finally got clear of it, I had to learn how to swallow again.

“After all of that, I guess I should have been glad that all I lost, physically, was some trunk stability, but I couldn’t be. I just felt – feel – so fucking done with optimism, with the idea of gratitude. It takes a shitton of energy, it honestly takes discipline, and I literally didn’t have it in me anymore. When you’re not even thirty, you’ve never been able to move yourself in your life, and you’ve just spent a quarter of a year with a tube down your throat, it’s just… why, you know?“

Paul is watching me gravely, his face very still. His silence feels heavy. I imagine the salt air moving across my skin, with a nervous briskness that suggests a rainstorm coming soon.

After I stop talking, I watch as Paul’s eyes move over my face, in a way that people’s eyes almost never do: normally I get either panicked glances away or the horrified/fascinated stare. He’s looking me over slowly, intently, a slight furrow – concern? curiosity? – between his brows; I have the sense that he’s looking not at me, but for something in me.

“Why haven’t you stopped?” Paul says, finally.

“What?”

“Why haven’t you given up?”

I pretend like I didn’t know what he meant the first time he asked the question, like I’m not staging all of this as a way to hold myself and my coward’s tenets up against someone whom I imagine on the thinnest of evidence to be a better person than me, a brighter person, a deeper and stronger person.

“Oh. Inertia,” I say; it’s something I’ve said to myself over and over, a talismanic word, but one I’ve never dared to voice for fear of the questions it would raise. Saying it out loud, even in a dream, carries a sense of release, of daring, that is almost sensual. “I’m just waiting until I run out of momentum.” My voice rises at the end, an involuntary questioning note.

Paul responds to the implicit doubt. “But now you have hope,” he says, with exactly the right shading of skeptical humor.

“The h-word. Tell me again what you told me yesterday when I asked you about the device.”

“After the trial, you asked me,” he says obediently, but with a challenging glint in his eye, “when it would be commercially available.”

“And?” I watch as the wind lifts his hair again.

“And I said we weren’t sure. Five years, maybe six.”

“Five years,” I say, “is a long time.” And I imagine releasing my wine glass to gesture demonstratively at myself.

“For someone like you,” he says, voicing my implication.

“For someone like me. It’s perfect now. Why won’t you let me have it?” I could have said us, pretended I was asking on behalf of everyone like me, but like optimism, generosity is beyond me.

“The device? It’s not perfect. Maybe in your memory it is.” He’s diverging from the script

“It was,” I insist. I show him: again I extend my arm in a single smooth gesture, extend my fingers elegantly at the end of the arc. “I remember what every moment of that feels like. You wouldn’t goddamn understanding what perfect is.”

My brain is spinning its wheels; it doesn’t know where to go with this anymore. I feel the pull of anxiety, and for a sudden sick moment I’m back in myself, awake, and I feel it with horror as my limbs wake up, too. One of my arms flops across my chest, writhing. I inhale deeply and force myself to relax, I reach again for the slightly woozy sense of drifting that I know will take me back to that early-morning state of half-dream. I relax away from my body.

I’m back; I slip again into the grey day, the sound of the wind and the ocean, the way that I want Paul to look at me.

“But you’ll do it,” Paul is saying, as if our conversation has continued in my absence.

“I’ll do what?” I put all the spite that I can into the question. I don’t want to make this easy for him.

“You’ll come back. You’ll do another trial, and another one.” His brown eyes are fixed on mine. “As many as you can come back for, you will. Even though…”

“Even though.” Again, I load it with spite.

“Even though it breaks everything, every way that you think about yourself.”

“By?”

“By giving you what you thought you always wanted.”

Yes.” I could wake up now, if I chose to, I could see if it’s time to call Joel in.

“But you’ll come back.”

His eyes are like a physical weight on me. Again, outside, I feel my body start to writhe around me, the calm burning center of me, but I stay here.

“You’ll come back,” he says a final time. And I say, “Yes.”

“This can’t hold,” I say, as he finally, finally moves his hand across the table to place it on mine.

“But you’ll come back,” he says. And I let myself edge toward wakefulness.

***

Thursday, December 28, 2017

New story! Lobster, with a straw

Hi everyone,
I'm back with a new story: Lobster, with a straw! It's a novella about a quad CP guy and I hope you'll all enjoy it. Special thanks to Annabelle for her great advice!
I plan to post regularly, probably on Saturdays as soon as it is free again (?). I can't promise to be able to post next week, though, but I'll give my best. With that... here's Chapter 1. Let me know what you think!
Cheers,
Lovis

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Chapter 4 of Christmas Crush is up!

Here's the penultimate chapter of this little story.  I'll try to have the final chapter ready Saturday, but no promises as I'll be pretty busy tomorrow and most of Saturday.  But Sunday will be quiet, so if I don't manage to publish it Saturday you'll get it Christmas Day.πŸŽ…πŸ»πŸŽ„  (Since Devo Girl announced taking a short hiatus I assume it'll be okay for me to publish Monday.  If not I'll wait 'til Tuesday.)

Christmas Crush - Chapter 4

Monday, December 18, 2017

New Devo Diary

Hey everyone, new Devo Diary here!

Devo Diary Chapter 37: Warren

In this chapter, I go on a date with another AB guy my friends have been trying to set me up with for a while. But don't worry, there is still more Mantis in this chapter too.

I'm sorry to say that with this chapter I have now posted everything I've written so far and with the holidays I might not have much writing time. So after this week, Devo Diary is going on hiatus, hopefully not for too long. It's been great building up so much momentum, and I've really appreciated all your kind comments. There is so much more to this story, and I'm looking forward to sharing it with you in the new year.

Table of Contents

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Chapter 3 of "Christmas Crush" is up!

So sorry for the delay.  I thought the "just-before-Christmas" days wouldn't be very busy this year. I was wrong and I've been struggling to juggle to write between work, family, Christmas shopping and a couple of pre-Christmas parties this past week.

Here's chapter 3 of Christmas Crush.  There will be one or two more chapters, depending on what my schedule permits.  I will do my best to finish at December 23rd as intended.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

No "Christmas Crush" today - stay tuned Saturday!

I had intended to post a new chapter of "Christmas Crush" today, but life has been crazy this past week and today has been, unexpectedly, packed from I woke up until well into the afternoon and tonight I've been out with friends, a pre-Christmas dinner that was planned months ago. I've had not time to work the chapter that I thought I would have between work and the dinner.

At the moment it's getting close to 3:30 am here in Norway and I'm tired and just want to get some sleep.  So sleep is the plan for right now since I have to get up by 7 am... Ugh!

The chapter is outlined and 80+% written.  It just needs a couple of more paragraphs and some editing to be ready for posting.  I have tomorrow afternoon off and I promise to get that done so I can it for you Saturday.

So sorry for the delay!

Monday, December 11, 2017

New Devo Diary

Here it is, more hot Mantis action! Devo Girl and The Mantis do a real SM scene or two.

Devo Diary Chapter 36: The Mantis, part 2

Table of Contents

If you enjoy this story, please leave comments! I really appreciate it.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Update to Santa Crush!

I'm back with another update to Santa Crush!  Will Dean reveal his secret to Callie?  Find out...

Chapter 5

Table of Contents

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Chapter 2 of "Christmas Crush" is here!

Thanks for the warm welcome you've given this story.  Without further ado here's Chapter 2!

Christmas Crush - Chapter 2

Enjoy!  I'm off to bed, it's 3:07 AM and Friday here in Norway.  Good night.😴

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Status Update - Love UnSeen & In/Exhale

Hey, all. I'm not dead yet.

I'm sorry I haven't posted anything recently. Honestly, the past few months have been really difficult for me. We finally got to go to Cleveland with high hopes only to have them dashed. The doc was annoyed we couldn't get there sooner (we live in Houston) and then was extra pissed because we prevented her starting her Thanksgiving vacation earlier. So she basically ignored everything we said, rushed through the visit, and refused to do anything, essentially. She was nasty and condescending. So we essentially wasted our time and money (it was expensive to fly out during Thanksgiving week last minute). I've had a LOT of bad doctor experiences, but that was the absolute worst, hands down.

Needless to say, I've had a hard time writing lately for a lot of reasons. Some are physical and some are mental. I've been dealing with pretty bad depression lately (and although that can help sometimes when writing, if it's too bad apathy sets in and it's difficult to care). I've tried to go back to Jackson but he's not speaking to me. And I've been doubting myself a lot.

I do have Feb 12 almost finished, and I don't think Feb 13 ("Valentine's Day" for Kai and Renee) will take too long to write. That should wind up Season 3 at long last (I'm really sorry it's taken soooo long), but after that I don't know. I also do want to continue Jackson's story, but I'm not sure when he'll start talking to me again.

Anyway, I figured I owed you guys an update, those of you who care, anyway, lol.

I hope you all have good holidays ahead.

-Chie AlemΓ‘n

Monday, December 4, 2017

New Devo Diary

Here it is, the first full chapter about The Mantis, that hot para guy I met at a fetish club. Enjoy!

Devo Diary chapter 35: The Mantis, part 1

Table of Contents

Sunday, December 3, 2017

New Story - Christmas Crush

Hi!πŸ‘‹πŸ»

I'm back with a new story.  I've had the idea for the story and the storyline outlined for a couple of years, but I haven't been sure how to approach writing it.  Until I read Annabelle's lovely story "Santa Crush" and things just "clicked" in my head and I started writing this week.  It's coming together and I plan a four part story with the coming Sunday and the final chapter will be posted on Christmas Eve, December 24th.  

It's a bit daunting to put pressure on myself like this and I feel bad for the unfinished stories I have here and on my own story site.  I've just been in a really bad place for a long time, struggling with several personal issues, but things are looking better and I plan to get back into writing on a regular basis.  My first goal is to finish "Christmas Crush" on time.  And then I'll get cracking on the other stories.  I hope to post updates regularly on those starting sometime in January 2018.

So, without further ado; here's chapter 1 of "Christmas Crush".  It's short, but I promise the next three chapters will be much longer.  See you in a week!

PS!  I hope Sunday's are ok to post on since Annabelle posted Saturday this week. If not I'm happy to switch days.  Just let me know!πŸŽ…πŸ»πŸŽ„

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Nick & Jessie: Explicit Sex Scene?

So since I released The Girl I Didn't Kill For a few weeks ago, I have gotten two emails from readers who expressed disappointment that there wasn't a sex scene at the end of the book between Nick and Jessie.  There's making out but no sex.  I had been considering writing one but didn't for the following reasons:

1) When I do write explicit sex scenes in my books, I tend to get emails complaining about them.  I don't think most people mind (or possibly like them), but there's a vocal minority that doesn't like them and will bash me for writing them.  And I don't usually get emails complaining about the lack of sex scenes. At the very least, it meant I'd have to be careful not to make the sex TOO steamy.

2) I have written a lot of sex scenes over the years, and they have gotten to be a little bit... repetitive for me.  It's always sort of the same, swapping out the names.  So I'm not excited to write them anymore.  I prefer to focus on plot and character development.

That said, it worries me that people might be disappointed about this.  So I'm considering writing the scene and posting it here (or on my own blog).  If people are interested?

Obviously, this is a busy time for me with the holidays and I'm still editing my Christmas novella to make sure that's ready, so it's hard to prioritize writing this sex scene I'm not even sure people want that badly!  So I'll make a deal with you guys.

I've been trying to get more reviews for Book 1 of the series, The Girl I Didn't Marry.  I've got 29 now and I want to get to 40 by Christmas.  If those of you who enjoyed the book can write a brief review (even a sentence is fine) to help me meet this goal, I'll drop everything else I'm working on and write that super hot, steamy sex scene.  I'll try to pull out all the stops and hopefully have it done before 2018. 

If I don't hit the goal of 40 reviews by Christmas... well, I'll probably write it eventually anyway if there's interest.  But it'll be way better if I have motivation, and this will totally inspire me!

(Also, if you haven't already, please read the latest chapter of Santa Crush below!)

Update to Santa Crush

So in the last chapter, Callie's lunch request got solidly rejected by Dean.  Will she give up on him?

Chapter 4

Entire story from the beginning

Monday, November 27, 2017

New Devo Diary

Here is your post Thanksgiving update to Devo Diary. In this chapter, an unexpected connection with a friend, more opera rehearsals, more BDSM club events, and oh my god, the first appearance of The Mantis! You guys, this is what you have been waiting for.
Read on...
Devo Diary Chapter 34: Brenno the Baritone

Table of Contents

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Santa Crush Thanksgiving update!

So the encouragement in the last post inspired me to get out a little Thanksgiving update of Santa Crush.  Callie still has no idea what Dean's secret is.  Will she find out when she asks him to lunch?

Chapter 3

The whole story from the beginning....

Monday, November 20, 2017

New Devo Diary

New Devo Diary here! I dive back into internet dating, and land a date with a gorgeous hipster dude. Yes, it's another AB guy, but there is dev content coming up soon, I promise! But first it's...
Devo Diary Chapter 33: Atom the Archaeologist

Table of Contents

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Santa Crush update

 
In Chapter 1, Dean learned he was going to have to dress up as Santa at the mall. Will the kids figure out Santa can't walk?  More importantly, will the sexy elf find out?

Chapter 2

Thank you in advance for any thoughts or comments!!!!!

P.S. Due to the holidays next weekend, I may or may not be able to post an update, but I will definitely be back the weekend after.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Free Friday Short

Hi guys,

this short story is for the amazing anonymous reader who followed me through Blue and Silver. You asked for Noel's version of Blue... Well, here it is: White. I hope you all like it (and I hope the ano is still around after all this time :))!
This bonus chapter can be read independently from the other story parts. Thanks again to Annabelle for proof-reading and very valuable comments!

Cheers,
Lovis

Thursday, November 16, 2017

New Book: The Girl I Didn't Kill For

For those of you who have been asking, The Girl I Didn't Kill For is finally available on Amazon:



Buy it on Amazon or read it free if you have Amazon Prime or Kindle Unlimited!

The cops have come to arrest me.

I know it’s them the second I hear that knock on the door. Cops have a knock I’d know in my sleep. That solid firm knock that you can hear anywhere in the apartment. I heard that knock many times before. I heard it when they took my father away. I heard it more times than I can count on my hands each time my brother Tony got busted.

But I never thought it would ever be me.

This is actually happening. These cops are taking me to jail. I’m going to be booked on a Murder One charge. I’m going to sit in a jail cell just like my brother did and my father did. I got the best lawyer in the city, but I’m not sure if even he can get me out of this one. The evidence is damning.

And the worst part?

The woman I love believes I’m guilty.


Buy it on Amazon or read it free if you have Amazon Prime or Kindle Unlimited!

Monday, November 13, 2017

New Devo Diary

New chapter here! Sorry it's another short one. Longer chapters are coming up, I promise. In this chapter I transition to being friends with Skip. Also it's March 2003, which means the opening of the Ben Affleck Daredevil movie, a significant event in my dev life, so I take some time to reflect on everyone's favorite blind superhero.

Devo Diary Chapter 32: After Skip

Table of Contents

Saturday, November 11, 2017

NEW STORY: Santa Crush

Hi all! It's Annabelle with a Christmas-themed novella. I decided to mix things up a bit and post on Saturday since I had Friday off.  Not sure if people like Saturday better than Sundays?

This is the first time I've ever written anything like this, so I hope you guys enjoy it. A friend of mine who read it already said it's her favorite thing I've ever written. It will probably be about 6-7 parts.

SANTA CRUSH



Dean

Nobody knocks anymore in this goddamn house.

They used to.  Even when I was a teenager, people would tap on my closed bedroom door prior to barging in.  Back then, they thought I could be doing something worth requiring privacy.  Like maybe I had a girl in here.  Or maybe I was relieving a little tension.  But these days everyone just swings the door open to my room without knocking because they assume all I could possibly be doing in here is working on my computer or watching TV.

To be fair, they’re mostly right. 

“Hey, Dean.”  It’s my brother Rich barging in this time. Rich is the last person I want to see right now.  “What’s going on?”

I lift my eyes to look at my little brother.  Rich—three years younger than me.  The pothead.  The screw up.  The one who would never amount to anything.  Yet he’s got his own place, while I occupy our parents’ den.  So who’s the screw up?

“Busy,” I mutter. 

These days I only seem to have the energy for one-word sentences.  Busy.  Tired.  Reading.  Or sometimes two words, if I’m really motivated.  Not hungry.  I use that one a lot on my mother.  Apparently, I’m “wasting away to nothing.”

Rich grins at me.  “Busy looking at porn?”

I glare at him.  He’s wearing badly ripped jeans that ride somewhere below where his butt crack probably starts.  He’s got on a T-shirt with a picture of a girl holding a hoe on it, with the words, “Every farm boy needs a good hoe.”  Even though I was always too polite to ever wear one, shirts like that used to get a laugh out of me.  But not much gets a laugh out of me these days.

“Busy working,” I mutter, gracing him with one of my rare two-word sentences.

“Christ, do you ever take a break?”

I glare at him again.  No, I don’t take a break.  Because I’m broke and I don’t want to spend the rest of my life living in my parents’ den.  That’s not my aspiration.  I have a Master’s Degree in computer science and I intend to use it to haul myself out of this shitty situation.

Eventually.

“I got a question for you, Dean,” Rich says.

I don’t answer, having already used up my word allotment for this conversation.

“When’s the last time you’ve been out of the house?”
 
I’m not touching that one with a ten-foot pole.

Rich plows on, not seeming to care about my lack of response: “Mom says you haven’t left the house in ten days.”

Ten days?  Is that right? 

Yeah, sounds right.  But so what?  It’s cold out there.  I don’t want to deal with it.  Is that so crazy?

“Mom thinks you’re planning to stay indoors the rest of the winter,” he adds. 

Congratulations, Rich, you’ve managed to break my concentration.  I lift my hands off the keyboard, figuring it’s a lost cause to try to get any work done right now.  It’s okay—I’ve got a week to get this code done.  I’ve got time.  It’s not like I need to clear my schedule for some hot date.  Maybe I’ll start watching the new season of Stranger Things.  I heard it was good.

“Dean?  Is that your plan?”

I sigh and grab the wheels of my chair to push myself away from my desk.  Even though it’s only me and Rich here, I have to admit I’m embarrassed when I look down and remember I’m wearing sweatpants.  Rich made a joke a few weeks ago about how I live in sweatpants these days, and I can’t say he’s wrong.  Sweatpants are comfortable.  They’re easy to put on.  They don’t have back pockets that will rub me in a place I can’t feel and make one of those pressure sores the docs at the hospital always used to scare me about.  And let’s face it—it’s not like I’m trying to impress anyone.

“There’s nowhere I want to go,” I finally say.

Six words.  He got six words out of me.  I must be in a better mood than I thought.

“So let’s go out,” Rich says, his lips curling into a grin.  “Let’s go hit O’Toole’s.”

 I just shake my head no.

“C’mon, Dean.” He reaches out like he’s going to slug me in the shoulder, but he doesn’t at the last minute.  Rich and I both use to do wrestling at the lightweight level in high school, so we practiced on each other as teenagers, even though he was smaller than me so I had to go easy on him.  Even after we both stopped wrestling, we used to punch each other with alarming frequency.  But now it’s like I’m made of glass.  He never touches me except when he has to in order to help me.  And then it’s so, so gently.  “You’ve got to get out of the house. You’re getting weird and isolated.”

I glare at him again.

“It’s happy hour,” he adds.

On Rich’s twenty-first birthday, I took him out for drinks at O’Toole’s.  That’s what you’re supposed to do for your little brother when he comes of age: get him plastered then make sure he arrives home safely.  Now it’s three years later, and I’m worried if we went out, I’d be the one who’d end up drinking way too much and Rich would have to push my sorry ass home.  Or worse, carry me. My life is too depressing to drink a responsible amount.

“No thanks,” I say, back in my two-word comfort zone.

Despite my refusal, Rich doesn’t budge.  He just stands there, fidgeting with the hoop in his left ear.  I remember how he agonized over which ear to get the earring in.  Apparently, there’s one ear that’s the ear gay men get pierced and the other ear is the straight one.  But he wasn’t sure which was which, and it varies region to region.  I thought his whole dilemma was really funny at the time. 

I never got an earring because I was the clean cut kid who got straight A’s and never broke curfew.  I followed every rule.  Yet look what happened to me.

Life’s a bitch.

“Do you want something?” I finally snap at him because he doesn’t appear to be leaving.

“Well…” Rich grins sheepishly.  And here it is—the real reason he’s here.  Not to rag on me for turning myself into a hermit or the fact that I haven’t showered in three days, but because he needs a favor.  God knows what kind of favor I could do for him anymore though.  “I sort of… need your help.”

I raise my eyebrows at him.

He sighs.  “So… you know that Santa gig I’ve got going at the mall?”

“Yeah…” The only reason I could think of to leave this house would be to see Rich dressed up as Santa at the mall.  It sounds like it would be hilarious. 

But I’d never go to the mall. Too many people I know there.  Too many chances to be forced to field questions like, “Dean, oh my God, what happened to you?”  No thanks.

“It turns out I’ve overbooked myself for tomorrow.”  He shrugs helplessly.  “I’ve got the Santa gig all day, but I’m also supposed to drive for Mr. Hannigan doing deliveries.  I’m stuck.”

Typical Rich dilemma.  Can’t say no to anyone.  Especially with the way jobs pay around the holidays.

“That sucks,” I say.

“So…” He flashes me a crooked grin.  “I thought maybe you could help me out.”

“You want me to call Bill Hannigan and tell him you’re an idiot?”

“Actually,” Rich says, rubbing his hands together, “I was thinking maybe you could play Santa for a day.”

I laugh.  It’s the first time I’ve laughed in ten days and it feels better than I expected.  It’s funny how you can forget laughing is something that feels good.

“So is that a yes?”

I laugh again and tug at the leg of my classy sweatpants.  “Rich, that’s a resounding no.”

“But Dean, I really need you to—”

“No.”

“Don’t you think it would be fun to—”

“No.”

“Come on, it would really help—”

“Am I saying ‘no’ in a language you don’t understand?”

Rich sighs and collapses onto my bed dramatically.  Even though he’s in his mid-twenties, he looks five when he does that.  It tugs at me, but not enough to get me to dress up in a Santa costume.  What the hell is wrong with him?  What made him think I’d even consider it?

“We could make a deal,” Rich says.

“You have nothing I want.”

My brother stares up at the ceiling thoughtfully.  He scratches at his spikey brown hair, which is a hint at how “cool” my own hair could look if I gave two shits about it.  Right now, I’m aiming for the “just rolled out of bed” look pretty much all the time.  It’s surprisingly easy to achieve.

“I’ve got one thing,” he finally says.

I raise my eyebrows, waiting to hear it.

“My apartment.”

I laugh again.  “That shithole?  Try harder.”

“I’m serious.” Rich sits up in my bed to look me in the eyes.  “You don’t have any place to hide over the holidays, do you?”

I cringe, aware of what he’s getting at.

“Grandma and Grandpa are coming…” Rich ticks them off on his fingers.  “Aunt Sarah and Uncle Pete.  Aunt Bernice.  All our cousins.  Great Uncle Joe.  Oh, and that creepy friend of Mom’s from work—John.”  His lips curl into a smile.  “Think about it, Dean.  All those people in the house.  For days—you know Grandma and Grandpa are staying with us, right?  Days and days of… well, you know.”

I do know.  It’s not like I thought my first Christmas since landing my ass in a wheelchair for life was going to be any picnic, but Mom had to magnify the situation by inviting our entire extended family.  When I protested, she cried.  Cried.  She said last year she wasn’t sure she’d have another Christmas with me, so this year is really important.  I can’t argue with my mother when she’s crying. I’m not some kind of monster.

So it’s going to be days of everyone clapping me in the shoulder and telling me how good I look.  Awkward conversations.  Sympathetic looks when I admit I haven’t worked up the nerve to actually interview for any jobs.  Patronizing comments when I say I’ve still managed to get some freelance work from people online who have no clue about my situation.  There will definitely be the occasional inappropriate question.  Mom’s friend John is sure to ask me how I manage to go to the bathroom.  And of course, none of them will knock before barging into my room because why would a disabled person need privacy?

It’s going to be terrible.

“You do this for me,” Rich says, “and I’ll give you a set of keys to my place.  You can stay there as much as you want until New Years.  Sleep there if you want—I’ll take the couch and you can have my bed.”

Wow.  I never thought it would be possible for Rich to offer me something that would make me considering putting on a red suit and fake beard, but here it is.

“Even if I theoretically were willing to do it,” I begin, “I can’t just show up at your job and pretend I’m you, right?”

He shrugs.  “Why not?  Nobody will know. You’ll be in costume.  We look enough alike.”

We do.  Or at least, we used to.

“Also,” I add, “I don’t think the kids are going to be excited about Santa in a wheelchair.”

Rich rolls his eyes.  “Don’t worry, we’ve got a huge throne for you to sit in.  You don’t have to budge from it. We can stash the chair out of the way.”

I can’t believe I’m considering this.  “What would I do?  I don’t have any experience with this.”

Rich laughs.  “Dean, you’ve got an advanced degree—I think you can figure out how to play Santa.” Possibly.  “It’s like the easiest job on the planet.  You just sit there, ask kids what they want for Christmas, then tell them ‘Merry Christmas.’”

I know even before the word “yes” leaves my mouth that this will be a mistake.



Callie

This is the ugliest elf costume I’ve ever seen.

There are cute elf costumes.  They exist.  My friend Serena was a sexy elf for a Christmas costume party last year, and every guy at the party was trying to get a piece of that elf.  It made me wonder what I’d be thinking when I decided to dress up as a very unsexy Mrs. Claus (only because I’m perpetually broke and was able to piece the costume together with items from my grandmother’s closet).

Anyway, back to the ugliest elf on the planet—i.e. me. 

I’m wearing a baggy green shirt with a red star collar.  It’s paired with red Capri pants that are also quite oversized, red-and-white striped stockings, and shoes that are a full five inches longer than my actual feet.  Pair it with a green cap and my humiliation is complete.

My roommate Rhea catches me gazing miserably at myself in the hall mirror and stops to stare.  I could be annoyed, but I can’t really blame her.  I stop and stare when I see a horrible car crash.  It’s human nature to stare at disasters.

“It’s awful,” I groan.  “I can’t go out in public looking this way.”

“I like the hat,” Rhea says and plucks it off my head, depositing it on her own mane of blond hair. 

Of course, she looks adorable in it.  There are two kinds of women in this world—those who look good in hats and those who don’t.  I am in the latter category: the hat-challenged.  I won’t even put on a baseball cap because it makes me look like an idiot.

“I wish I weren’t so poor,” I mutter.  “So I wouldn’t have to humiliate myself to have the money to buy Christmas gifts.”

Actually, I have already bought said Christmas gifts.  This job is so that I can pay the credit card bill when it arrives in January.  Or else face having the earrings I bought for my Aunt Sylvia repossessed. 

Rhea grins at me and replaces the hat back on my head.  “Think of it this way, Callie—this will give you a funny story to tell someday when you’re a rich and famous lawyer.”

Midway through my second year of law school, the dream of being a rich and famous lawyer seems as impossible as becoming a woman who looks good in hats.

“Do you need a ride to the mall?” Rhea asks me.

This is a very reasonable offer for her to make, despite the fact that I own a car.  My car, Old Denty, has only a fifty-fifty shot of starting on any given day.  If I have an exam that morning, the chances of her starting fall to a mere thirty-two percent.  Which is coincidentally the same score I got on my constitutional law exam when I was forty-five minutes late thanks to my stupid car not starting.  I wish I could afford a better car than Old Denty, but I can’t.  Not if I want to eat and have a roof over my head that isn’t made of cardboard.

“I’ll let you know,” I tell Rhea.  “Stand by.”

I grab my coat so I don’t have to be seen on the street in this ridiculous getup.  It’s a one-week gig, and I’m not looking forward to it.  I’ve never been an elf before but I’m guessing it’s going to involve a lot of screaming kids kicking me in the shins and an old guy in a Santa costume who will pinch my butt when nobody is looking.  But it pays really well because nobody wants to spend their Christmas week standing at the mall, looking like an idiot in an elf costume.

The best thing about Old Denty is nobody breaks into her.  The carjackers (rightfully) assume there could be nothing of value in a car that looks like that.  Let me tell you, if you ever want to smuggle a million dollars in a car, borrow Old Denty.  Nobody will suspect a thing.  Also, breaking in to Old Denty would presumably involve getting one of the doors open, which is a challenge in itself, even when you’ve got a key. 

As I turn my key in the engine and it reluctantly sputters to life, I think to myself that what I miss most about having a boyfriend is bumming rides off him.

That’s a joke, obviously.  I miss other stuff about having a boyfriend.  I miss making out.  I miss a nice stubble grazing my chin.  I miss Adam’s apples.  They are so sexy.  What are those things?  Why do they stick out?  Why don’t we women have them?  They are such a mystery.

Also, sex.  I miss sex.  It just isn’t the same with my little rabbit vibrator, despite the raves on Amazon.

When I’m stopped at a red light, I tug at my oversized green elf shirt.  Before I put this hideous costume on, I thought maybe this elf work would be an opportunity to meet someone.  After all, I’ve already dated everyone in my law school class who seemed dateable and determined none of them were a match.  (It didn’t take long.)  Being an elf might sadly be my only opportunity to meet eligible guys.  Older brothers.  Cool uncles.  Single dads.

Actually, I might be too immature to date a single dad.  The thought of me being any sort of mother figure is slightly horrifying.

But as I pull into the mall parking lot, I look down at my striped stockings and let out a sigh.  I will not be meeting any older brothers, cool uncles, single dads, or even spry grandpas today.  Nobody in their right mind would hit on me while I’m wearing this elf costume.  I’ll be lucky if they even recognize I’m female.

I swear to God, this better be worth the money.

To be continued...