Snake-Armed Girl

by Bard Bloom

Fifteen years ago, Liane's America was shaken by a magical war between elves and Moon Demons that left many human cities in flames and many people turned into monsters. It's mostly calmer now — but Liane's high school friend is turned into a cat-monster under suspicious circumstances, and then Liane herself is turned into a snake-armed girl under even more suspicious circumstances. As she investigates, she uncovers terrible secrets behind the war — and is cursed to be transformed into a woeful shape if she reveals them. Can she save her country without sacrificing her humanity and personality?

Excerpt:

What to Do When Your Best Friend Is Turning Into a Monster Cat: Friday, September 7, 2018

The worst thing in the world happened to Elise this morning.

Well, not exactly all of Elise. The worst thing in the world happened to Elise's shoe size this morning.

And we're trying to joke about it to cheer her up — to cheer everybody up — but it isn't actually funny. It's not actually curable either, and the prognosis is terrible.

Anyhow, I will be a good public-diary-keeper and start from the beginning. Today was a half-day at school. The first week of school is always stupid, with Labor Day off, then Tuesday as the first day and Wednesday as the second, and Thursday and Friday as half-days called "Teachers' Afternoons." Maybe they need some time off to concoct all the assignments they meant to concoct all summer and never quite got to. (They leave everything to the last minute, those teachers. Not like students at all.)

READ MORE

So the Teachers' Afternoon leaves Elise and Annika and me going to Annika's house for lunch and homework. Our school is Tolland Academy (which means a lot if you're from Cleveland), and not super-close to where we live. So Elise's mother, or sometimes Annika's when she's home, drives us. Congress has vacation for another week for some reason or other, probably because Congressmen are even lazier than teachers. Which means Annika's father is home instead of in Washington being the wily and powerful Rep. Ballard, Speaker of the House. But Annika's mother isstill in Washington, probably competing with 434 other congresswives to see who is the most plastic-made and personality-free. I bet she wins hands-down.

Annika's newish housekeeper María made us a weird lunch. Deep-fried bananas stuffed with cream cheese and strawberry jam! For lunch! She says it's a Guatemalan traditional recipe. Grilled cheese sandwiches too, with a smear of frijoles in with the cheese. That's at least pretending to be a normal lunch food.

Not that there's anything really very normal about having lunch with two classmates, two Secret Service agents, and the guy who has been Acting President of the United States for almost six weeks over the last three years, while he's having a fight with his daughter about her asymmetric spiky hair style, inky-black lip gloss, and buttons with blasphemous slogans on them.

And after lunch we left the former acting president and the guys who could kill you in two seconds behind and went to the lake in Annika's living room. Her living room is approximately twice as large as all of Ohio (*), and gets redecorated approximately every half-hour when Annika's mother is in town. They hold wily and powerful parties for wily and powerful people there. Also — especially — the parties are for people who want to think that they are wily and powerful because they are invited to the wily and powerful parties, and they get to show just how wily and powerful they are by giving Rep. Ballard some big campaign contributions. (My mom and dad are regulars. Mom is very wily and used to be powerful. Still is, I guess, but not as much as when she was Assistant Mayor. And Dad is fairly wily, a little powerful, and, because he is a Dean — that's a sort of levelled-up super-professor — he has the magic ability to talk to anyone at all about anything at all and know more about it than they do (or sound like it anyhow) and make it be a devastatingly interesting conversation. Which makes his conversational victims give more money to Rep. Ballard. I'm usually invited also, to give Annika someone her own age to hang around with so she doesn't pester the wily and powerful people while they're getting fleeced.)

(*) I am known to exaggerate sometimes. I exaggerate a lot when I do. So you know that the living room is just "big". But the worst thing did happen to Elise's shoe size. That's not an exaggeration.

Anyways, the lake in Annika's living room is a big squooooshy ring couch, around a coffee table which is a slab of glass over a working saltwater aquarium full of fish that are all sorts of colors not found in nature, on a wavy blue oceanic rug. It is the best place in Ohio to do Biology 11 homework, because you can see real live biology swimming around and waving its very biological antennae at you through the page you're writing on. But today we were doing Physics 12 homework set number 1. For the first week that's just forces and accelerations and velocities and freely falling bodies.

And as we started Problem 3, Elise said, "Yeesh, my feet hurt terribly all of a sudden!"

"So take your shoes off," said Annika. "Take everything off. See if I care!" She grinned a wicked grin of the sort that goes well with asymmetric spiky hair, inky-black lip gloss, and buttons with blasphemous slogans on them. This is not my favorite side of Annika.

Elise took her shoes off, and we all saw why her feet hurt terribly all of a sudden. Her feet, from the soles to a bit below the ankle, were suddenly huge black-furred cat paws, like for a panther or a black tiger or some such thing. They hadn't been like that this morning, or even when we started Problem 2.

María came running in when she heard us scream. She screamed too — Mãe do diabo! — and fainted, and became a freely falling body, as described by the equations in Physics Problem 3.

So I tried to take care of María: a cup of water, a chair, and some fanning. That worked. And Annika tried to take care of Elise. But about all you can do for someone who's gone chimmy is a hug and some kind words. That didn't work much.

I have Elise's mom's number on my phone because carpooling. "Mrs. Tambralini? Hi, this is Liane. You've got to come back to the Ballard's."

Elise's mom said, "Oh my God. What is it?"

"Elise's feet somehow got chimericized into cat feet."

"Oh my God. On my way."

I also have my own mom on my phone. "Hi, Mom. We've got a problem here, and we kinda need some wily and powerful assistance."

"Hi, chicklet. What's wrong?"

I told her. She made some phone calls. We called my dad, who also made some phone calls. He's not very wily or very powerful compared to either Mom or Mr. Ballard, but he is a Dean at Case Western, which means that he can call professors and ask for favors, and get them, too.

We knew it wouldn't do any good. No matter how wily and powerful your people are, it doesn't help against the Moon Demons.

Some of us piled into the Tambralini car, and some into the Ballard car, and headed for the hospital. Why the hospital? Because there was some biology involved, I guess. People and panthers are both living things, even when one is changing into the other, so a hospital might have more of a clue than, oh, a frozen yogurt shop or a seedy bar in the grungy part of town. Not very likely, really, but it might. And we wanted to hear words like "prognosis" and "cure" and "medical science" from highly educated expert specialists. Mom's calls were mostly to make sure they didn't keep us waiting.

Elise sat between us, Annika and me. She pulled her foot paw up and stared at it. It was big and round, with four massive toes, and big curved claws she could stretch out with an easy squeeze. Metal claws — a disturbing green-black shiny metal. Sharp claws, too. The first blood on them was Annika's. Jet black fur on top of the paw, the kind you're supposed to get bad luck from if a cat that color crosses your path. I didn't joke about that to Elise. She already had enough bad luck for one day, or one year.

The first tears shed were Elise's, just after she cut Annika.

"Does it hurt?" her mother asked her several hundred times.

"No. It just feels like my feet. It only hurt when I had shoes on." Elise went back to crying, "And I just got two pairs of new shoes too. Nice ones. Now I won't be able to wear them. That's a stupid thing to be upset about, but it's what I'm upset about right now."

Annika held Elise's hand, which seemed to calm Elise down some.

Mrs. Tambralini kept saying things like, "It's just your feet. You're still human from the ankles up. You're going to be all right. It's a bad thing but it will all be OK." She did not persuade anybody, not even herself.

We got to the hospital without, I don't know, Elise accidentally clawing a hole in the floor of the car, or going mad and toe-ing us all to death, or Annika turning into a sabre-toothed bear, or anything. Or Elise totally having a fit, which I guess was more likely.

Then we did hospital things for two and a half hours. (Rep. Ballard was mostly on his phone doing politics, but he was there for his daughter's friend, and he talked with doctors when doctors were talking to us.) Blood samples, X-rays, cardiograms, MRI scans, and things with parabolic dishes and boxes with cables and dials that one Prof. Ramanujan, compelled by Dad's deanliness, had brought over. I can't think of anything interesting or clever to say about this part. It was all very science.

At the end of the tests, we all trooped into the doctor's lounge, because no doctor's office was big enough for everybody. "Everybody" included three doctors, a senior radiologist, a psychologist, Prof. Ramanujan, and a chunky older woman I will call Professor X because I can never remember her name even though I've met her a dozen times. (I could look it up or ask Dad, but Professor X sounds a whole lot cooler than Professor Marjorie Bonnet? Benet? Something like that. I'm sure she would think so if I told her.) Plus our whole party, including Secret Service guards for Mr. Ballard. The guards never took their eyes off Elise. Elise was officially a Threat.

They said the same few things over and over and over again, in slightly different ways. And we knew all of those things anyways, because we have been hearing about the Elf and Demon War since roughly I was born. In case you've lived under a rock or outside the U.S.A. — the Elf and Demon Wars were entirely inside the U.S.A., except for the Moon — here are those things, condensed and neatly summarized so you don't have to read them over and over and over again.

Responsible Agent

The Moon Demons are ultimately responsible for chimericization, Elise's and all other victims'. (The doctors and professors all pronounced that properly: KAI-mer-uh-KUH-zay-shun. (Real people pronounce it "shim-MER-uh-mumbledemumble".)) They did something, as yet unidentified, when they flew over our cities — in case burning them down wasn't enough, I guess. The "something" has never exactly been understood. It turns people into monsters.

To which everyone wondered, "How did some of that something get into Rep. Ballard's house?"

The best guess is "deliberately". The Moon Demons are presumably trying to chimericize the most powerful sober person in the U.S.A.

Nobody asked "why". The Moon Demons have never been very good at explaining why they do anything. Good at burning cities down, yes. Good at turning people into monsters, yes. Basic third-grade communication skills, no.

Everybody did ask "how". Moon Demons fly down from the back side of the moon, which is why they are moon demons rather than, I don't know, Hackensack demons or wherever they would come from if they didn't come from the moon. They ride horrible carved logs with fists on the front, naked in outer space. They show up on radar when they're in the atmosphere, so we have some warning when they're about to burn a city up — or turn your friend into a pumapod. And they haven't come visiting. They've barely been seen since the war, and the last sighting was back in May.

It could just be some leftover whatever-it-is. Most people who have gone chimmy in the last few years didn't have Moon Demons around either. And the Moon Demons did visit Cleveland during the war, though the elves drove them off pretty fast.

But nobody believed that it was just a coincidence that it happened at the Speaker's house while the Speaker happened to be there.

Monster

Usually "monster" just means "monstrous shape". Part-human, part-animal is the most common, but some people get up to five or six animals, and many lose all their human. Some people get other things too. One of the first chimmies (pronounced "chimmies" even by professors) grew a long kangaroo tail that sprouted razor-sharp scimitar blades. Most of the animals vaguely resemble natural Earth animals, often with metal bones. The rest aren't even at all like anything that ever lived on Earth.

"I just got one kind of animal," said Elise. "That's good, isn't it?"

"Well," said all the highly educated people. Which we understood as "no."

Prognosis

The full transformation takes anywhere from an instant to more than sixteen years. Elise's chimericization could be over now, or it could keep going until there's nothing human about her. We can't tell what's going to happen. But there are no recorded cases of chimmies with just cat feet. Some of them wind up cat-people, like Tom Slinky. (He's a very popular and rather tabby rock musician who plays the cat thing to the fullest. His real name off-stage is William Howard Kobatchevskii, but he's only 1/4 Ukranian; the rest is from Virginia. I was never obsessed. Never.) Some wind up more like tigers. Some wind up as gryphons, tiger plus eagle. Some wind up as tiger-beetle-amoeba horrors.

"I don't want to be any of those!" Elise wailed.

"Potential experimental treatments," said Professor X.

"I don't want to be a lab animal!" Elise wailed.

"Responsible experimental design and subject treatment," said Professor X.

Elise shut up.

Mind Warping

Most — 60% — chimmies go berserk and start killing people immediately. Elise did not do that.

If they don't go berserk immediately, most chimmies mostly stay sane. Only about 11% go mad in any sort of massive obvious way. (Most of the remaining 89% of chimmies are depressed, anxious, or miserable, which is entirely reasonable if you've been turned into a monstrous-shaped person by the Moon Demons without them even seeming to care about it.) Only about nearly all of the mad ones go into murderous rages and wind up getting shot by the police or thrown into prisons and psychiatric hospitals forever.

"And chimerae with metal bones do seem to have a predisposition towards mental difficulties," said a merciless doctor, mercilessly. "We'll have to pay attention to that."

"I feel like I'm going mad already!" Elise wailed.

"You're distraught and upset in an entirely reasonable and sane way," said some doctors. "If you start having murderous feelings over the next few weeks, call us immediately."

Dr. Persnicker gave Elise a sedative. It helped some but did not wail-proof her.

Luck

Elise had the worst luck in the world. During the war, some four thousand people got chimmied. In 2001, the next year, only a hundred and eight. In 2002, seventeen. Since then only four or five a year. All that is in the U.S.A. The Moon Demons didn't go after the rest of the world, and the only non-American chimmies were foreigners unlucky enough to be in America during the war, in a city that got hit. Which means pretty much "a city".

"Whumble deerm frabb whumble," said Elise. The sedative was obviously working.

The Secret Service agents fingered their guns nervously. The chimericization was obviously aimed at the man they were guarding, or it's a coincidence so coincidenceful as to be ridiculously ridiculousful. And they couldn't even see the danger, much less do anything about it.

Social Service Agencies

(This is the one topic we didn't know.) Various social service agencies have offices or people devoted to helping chimmies. Sometimes they're alongside other services, and sometimes they're their own thing. For example, lots of advanced chimmies don't have human mouths anymore, and can't talk understandably. (Lots of cat chimmies are like this, in particular, since Elise is a cat chimmy now. Tom Slinky is a great musician but nobody can understand his lyrics anymore. He's 18% more cat than when he started his musical career. I continue to be not obsessed to the point of knowing all the facts to more than two decimal places.) So some of them get talking computers, especially ones that can be operated with paws or tentacles or mandibles or things. This isn't different from how some other people are treated. Stephen Hawking (paralyzed but not a chimmy) has the same computer system.

"E maunpit whernip lorse moe brace," mumbled Elise sedatedly. We all instantly translated that into "I don't want to lose my voice." Everyone glanced simultaneously and surreptitiously at her mouth, which was still human.

"Well, if you have trouble with things, here are seven hundred and sixty-one phone numbers to call," said Professor X, handing Elise a pamphlet of four folded sheets of paper, which must have been rather larger than the Cleveland Yellow Pages based on her expression when she looked at it.

"Shoes. Pretty shoes," proclaimed Elise in a voice as clear as the clearest crystal vase. At least, the clearest crystal vase that had some flowers and water put in two weeks ago and hasn't gotten cleaned out yet.

"You'll need custom-made shoes," said Professor X.

"I'm dating a leatherworker who makes boots and sandals and things," said one of the doctors, and added a name and phone number to Elise's list. This turned out to be the best advice of the day.

Experimental Treatments

"You had mentioned experimental treatments," asked Mrs. Tambralini. "Tell us what those would entail."

"Well," said the scientists, and looked nervous, and explained things for half an hour.

"So basically, modern science doesn't have a clue how chimericization works, it doesn't even obey the natural laws we understand, so you're trying to put people under strong magnetic fields or neutrino rays or laser beams and hope that something happens?" asked Mrs. Tambralini, who is a freelance writer who sometimes writes science, as well as Elise's stay-at-home mom.

"Not us in particular. Nobody in Cleveland is working on it," said the scientists. "But you're right."

"It's up to Elise ultimately, but I don't think we're interested," said Mrs. Tambralini.

"But! Science!" wailed the scientists.

"I'd feel differently if you had the first clue about what to do. But you're bringing a magnetic field to a gunfight here," said Mrs. Tambralini. "A gun that shoots non-magnetic lead bullets, even."

"But! Science!" wailed the scientists. Dr. Persnicker fingered his sedatives meaningfully.

"It's ultimately up to Elise. I will OK MRI scans and labwork that can be done in Cleveland. If you have any ideas that are more than a spitball in the dark, I'll listen," said Mrs. Tambralini.

"We don't," admitted the doctors, but they had stopped wailing, so Dr. Persnicker put the sedatives away.

Amputation

"OK, I'm not saying this is a good idea. But if her feet are contaminated with some kind of poison or something, could we tourniquet them, or, this is horrible, amputate them, to stop it from spreading?" asked Rep. Ballard.

Elise kind of whimpered. It might have been the first time that a President of the U.S.A. had tried to cut her feet off — even a former acting President.

"That's been tried with — who was that bull-man? Leo Snodgrass. His feet turned into hooves, so he had them cut off. As soon as the scalpel touched him — before it made a cut, even — he turned all the way into a slime-bull, instantly," said Professor Ramanujan. Some others chimed in with three or four similar cases.

"That's freaky," said Annika.

"So we think the chimericization agent is sentient, and watching," said Professor X, mercilessly.

"That's very, very, very freaky," said Annika. Elise started crying, and Annika put an arm around her and comforted her.

The Elves?

"Can we ask the elves for help?" asked Mrs. Tambralini, having already grasped at all the straws that could imaginably have worked even a little bit.

"They haven't helped with chimeras before," said Professor X.

"We — humanity — haven't much contact with them since the war," said Professor Ramanujan, drumming on the arm of his chair with his pencil. He was never very happy with stupid questions. Rep. Ballard flinched a bit. Ramanujan stared at him. "What?"

"Nothing helpful. I'm very sorry, Professor," said Rep. Ballard.

Professor X put on her professorialest voice. "But that's the summary of it. We don't know if the elves can stop or reverse chimericization. We haven't seen any elf-chimeras, but we haven't seen many elves, period. There's a theory going around that the Moon Demons are chimericized elves, since every Moon Demon looks different and monstrous, and they seem to have a gripe with the elves."

The Dragon?

"How about that dragon that the spy satellites saw a few times over the Eastern Seaboard?" asked Mrs. Tambralini. "Could it be any use?"

The scientists didn't know much about it. The no-actual-data about the elves was a mountain of facts compared to what they knew about the dragon. They weren't even sure if it was real. Professor X thought it was a severely chimericized person who went mad and solitary.

"No," said Rep. Ballard. "The dragon won't be helpful. I know some things about it — classified things. All I can tell you is from the Department of Safety's web site, which is to try to avoid the dragon if at all possible."

God?

"If science isn't doing a good job on this oh-so-mysterious stuff, what about God?" asked Mr. Tambralini.

Professor X shrugged. "Organized religion has not been excellent about doing double-blind experiments or even giving good statistical data. There are cases of people who thought they were chimericizing who prayed for relief and did not become chimerical. We've got Christians, Jews, and Buddhists in that list. None of them were reliably shown to be chimericized in the first place. We've got a couple people with chimerical parts who prayed and their chimericization did not progress for a while. And other cases where no amount of devotion seemed to do anything. That televangelist who claims to cure chimericization, cancer, heart disease, and everything else — his verified track record is about zero on all counts. Apologies if you are among his faithful. Anyhow, we don't have any reliable reports of someone in Elise's condition who has been cured by any means whatsoever: human, elven, or divine."

The Real Question

"So do we know anything of any use about the Moon Demons or the elves or about chimericization or about the weapons they destroyed Houston and Indianapolis with or how they live in outer space without even breathing gear or anything?" I had to ask.

"Not really," said all the adults in seventeen thousand different ways that all sounded like excuses.

"They had a huge freaking war raging over all the United States for a year! You must have learned something!" I whined. Dr. Persnicker looked as if he was on the verge of forcibly prescribing a sedative for me.

"We learned a lot about what they could do, to us and to each other. We learned a lot about what we could do to them, which was basically nothing. No weapons we used against them did a d*mn thing, up to and including nuclear weapons. We never learned how they do what they do. We've had scientists working on it from then until now — Dr. Ramanujan has a big grant for just that — but I wouldn't say we've made any progress," said Rep. Ballard, who seemed to care a great deal about the topic.

Dr. Ramanujan may not have made any progress, but he certainly made excuses. Fifteen of them, until Rep. Ballard hushed him up.

The Conclusion

Elise is screwed. With one of those big industrial-grade screws they use to hold skyscrapers up.

No surprise there.

COLLAPSE
Reviews:L.R. on amazon.com wrote:

was one of the lucky first readers for this book. After I'd finished reading the initial draft, I told Bard, "I can suggest some wording changes and typo fixes, but I can't improve on this story. It is perfect."

I usually do not mind that Amazon's "5 stars" clumps the great together with the fantastic, but Snake-Armed Girl belongs in a class of its own. If I could give it 6 stars, I would, and it is the only book I would put in that category. This is the best book I have read in the last six years.

I love this book without reservation. The way the story is put together is astonishing: it has turns that I never saw coming, and yet were perfectly foreshadowed in retrospect. The resolution is brilliant, and the denouement impeccable.

Some bullet points:

* This is a YA book with parents who are alive, intelligent, caring, and involved with the lives of their teenagers.
* In fact, the adults in Snake-Armed Girl are generally competent and often able to provide help and support in various ways for the challenges faced by the protagonist and her friends
* And yet the challenges for the teenagers are things they ultimately have to face themselves. When adults cannot help, it is always for excellent reasons that make sense in the context of the story. Nothing is contrived or forced.
* The antagonists in this story do terrible things for fascinating, often sympathetic reasons. Early in the story, those motives are so well-hidden that their actions seem utterly random and nonsensical, but when the whole puzzle is unveiled it is breathtaking to behold. You may find yourself hating the antagonists, but you will understand them.
* Liane, the protagonist, is absolutely wonderful. The story unfolds in the first person, and her voice is distinctive, charming, and witty. She makes light of serious problems in a way that makes them bearable without ever ignoring how serious they are. She handles the many problems the universe throws out her with just the right mix of brilliance and believable teenage "I have no idea what to do now AHHHHH".
* The titular snake-arms are amazing too, with their own personalities that integrate with Liane's and give her a unique and slightly alien perspective. I love how this is handled.
* Basically, I love everything about this book, why are you still reading this review when you could be reading Snake-Armed Girl nooooooow?

tl;dr: BUY THIS BOOK YOU WILL NOT REGRET IT


About the Author

Bard is a software engineer by day, a parent by night, and a writer of fantasy/sf books on the train between them.  Bard is as gender-free as practicable.  They live with their wife and her wife near NYC.


Leave a Comment