Gregor awoke and, with some dismay, regarded the curtains of his meager bedroom; the light of day filtered through with such a brightness as to inform him that he was late for work. Panicked, Gregor glanced over at the Armageddon Clock and saw that it was past nine – a full thirty minutes over the expected commencement of employment! His mind filled at once with thoughts of dismissal – his beetroot-faced employer, Mr Nelson, enraged at this display of wanton idleness (and being as intolerant as flint), casting him from the shop with forty-five pence and harsh words following. All this tragedy played in Gregor’s mind – leading, as you would most surely expect, to anxieties for the subsequent provision of the familial food, drink and boosters.
Gregor rallied quickly with hot feelings of injustice, for not once in more than five years of loyal service to Nelson’s Comics & Books of Horseferry Road – proud purveyors of graphic novels, pulp cartoonage and collectible card games (with their multitudinous periphera) – had Gregor taken leave of the Company, be it for medical, vocational, or other personal reasons. Indeed, had he not absented himself from the funerals of three Grandparents (all Paternal) in order to coordinate weekend play sessions? Moreover, had he not foregone the wedding of his elder brother (on the morning of the very day), passing over the honour of Best Man to an acquaintance, when a Nationals qualifier had been relocated to the premises at short notice accompanied with a deficiency of judging staff? He had done all of these things and much more – and thus, in his own mind lay convinced, unswervingly, of his own value and worth to the Company (despite this first sleight of tardiness) and of the inevitable security of his post therein.
Gregor made to rise and prolong this unpunctuality no further, when, suddenly he was given to most unusual sensations of weakness in his mid-riff. At first, he attempted to raise the duvet from his bed with his hands and regard the area of great sensitivity but found himself unable to grasp at the thick cloth. Additionally, about his head ranged the great softness of his pillow that only the previous evening had seemed small and flat, but this morning felt vast and expansive. Furthermore, he found himself so stiff of neck that he could but strain to glimpse any part of the bed’s end and proceeded to rock himself forward and back, feeling himself confined as if roped about the middle and about the ankles – his arms and legs bound so tightly as to render him solid and immovable.
Gregor persisted, and this constant rocking achieved, within ten minutes or so, the effect of removing himself from the oppression of the duvet and, at once, Gregor was able to glean the true nature of his paralysed predicament: a gasp of horror escaped from his mouth (or where, at least, he assumed his mouth to be) as he saw, in the lightening grey of the weekend, what he had become…
During the dark hours of his deep and dreamless slumber, Gregor’s traditional form had undergone a miraculous, and yet grotesque, transformation: he had become a deck of cards. Gregor was now a standard-sized box (cuboid and colorful) containing a deck of Magic: The Gathering cards, be-sleeved and ready for play, replete with a sideboard and tournament-legal in the Standard environment. Of the method or means for such a conversion, Gregor remained unenlightened.
The next fifteen minutes was spent experimenting with his new form: lifting and tucking, waving and undoing. With a little effort, Gregor found himself able to open the ends of his ornate box and protrude two small wings of cardboard from his lower end; these, once he had wriggled himself erect, he found strong enough to support his entire weight and could be used as a form of legs. He rocked off the bed and onto the carpet with a dull thud and, nervously at first, pivoted upon them across the carpet to his mirror thence to gaze upon his modified figure. Upon closer inspection, his box had a large flap for a top lid, such that it extended down the front of his body and a small tab at its end could be inserted into a receptive slit. He drew the lid upwards in a wide sweeping arc until it waved above his head, revealing the slender cards within: his sleeves were green – slick and glossed to provide easy shuffling – and each contained a mint condition spell or land, some of which were foiled and some not.
Gregor found it relatively easy to raise each card, individually and as if with invisible fingers, from the mass of the deck so that he could gaze at its title, flavor text, and artwork in the mirror. It was, upon first (reversed) appearances, a creditable and inventive beatdown deck with some rare surprises for the unwitting opponent. As Gregor began to adjust to his predicament, he dwelled for some moments upon his nature and perspective – for though he could see no eyes or other sensory organs, he was still blessed with those abilities normal to the sensually-active individual. His mind seemed to hover just above the copyright notices at the top of the box, as if on an invisible cloud – a non-corporeal entity tied, by some astral cord, to the physicality of his person.
Waking him from his pensive state, there came a calling from the room adjacent and a knock at his door; his mother, Mrs Samsa, had completed her breakfast duties and, concerned at Gregor’s late arousal, sought ingress.
“Gregor? Gregor? Are you ill? Mr Nelson will be waiting! Do you wish to become unemployed?” she asked.
Startled, Gregor replied: “Good morning, mother,” and then scrambled under the bed with such force that he creased his left leg tab as he did so. He was anxious that his mother refrain from calling the shop too hastily – perhaps his dread transmogrification would pass and, as if all was a dream, Gregor would be restored to his former self.
“I must confess that I awoke feeling unwell, but now I am much restored; I will attend Mr Nelson presently!”
“Would you like me to arrange your bedclothes while you breakfast?” his mother asked testily.
Gregor felt irritated immediately by his mother’s tone – at the first sign of his being in poor health, she had assumed him to be malingering. His anger soon dissipated when he remembered his bizarre state.
“I am well now, mother,” he repeated, “Though I don’t feel hungry at this time. I shall get something later.”
At that instant, his bedroom door was opened and in stepped his mother without any further warning and certainly without Gregor’s permission!
“Gregor?” she called, turning her head this way and that, seeking out her errant off-spring, “Gregor? Where are you?”
Gregor pulled himself further under the bed, but not before she caught a glimpse of his movement in the shadows.
“Gregor? Are you hiding beneath the bed? Come out at once – it is all dusty and dirty and will serve no good for your asthma”
She crouched and peered: “Gregor?”
She stood and, once more, examined the small room: “Gregor? Where are you hiding?”
Gregor felt ashamed to his core and, determined that this waking dream should be dissipated as soon as possible, he scuffled into view and stood up.
“I am here, mother,” he called. “Look downwards!”
She turned, gazed upon him in the thick pile, and gasped. She found no words at the sight of this gaming tool, this hobby component, animated at her feet – no words, and yet she certainly found a fulsome scream.
Although Gregor felt no hunger, presumably because he lacked a stomach and alimentary canal, he began to feel weary. The exertions of the day, and the anxiety at his metamorphosis, had left him drained of energy; bereft of vigor and lack of luster. When his mother had ceased her soprano siren and taken a few moments to breath, compose her thoughts and attempt a first acceptance of Gregor’s new anatomy, she began to question him: Why had this happened? What had he done? What drugs had he taken? How would they manage to subsist, as he could surely not continue to earn a wage in this new form? And so on. Gregor, unable to answer any of these enquiries, simply lay back against a table leg and shuffled himself silently; in this position he remained until the evening, when his father, Mr Samsa, returned from his toiling as a potato grader at a nearby farm and his sister, Greta, returned from her school.
Mrs Samsa fussed and bothered about her husband, still removing his coat in the hallway, and gabbled too excitedly for her meaning to be understood; Mr Samsa simply waved her incomprehensible babblings away with a muddied, calloused palm and a cry for “Tea and toast, woman! Cease your prattling and bring me refreshment! Can’t you see the master of this house is fatigued?” Mrs Samsa, conscious of her duty, carried out her husband’s wishes – after all, there was plenty of time that evening to describe the miraculous events of the day.
Greta retired to her room immediately upon arrival wherein she, dutifully, took up thirty minutes of Yu-Gi-Oh practice – filling the small house with staccato bursts of anime cartoon exclamation and the rattling sound of a thousand life-counter beads being diminished and replenished. Gregor, whose room was next to his sisters, listened to this playtesting and, to his surprise, began to feel more uplifted; it seemed that whenever Greta gained life he himself felt energised – and when she took damage, he felt himself depleted – as weary as he had been before. Thus, did Gregor discover the means by which he must gain sustenance from that point forward – as a deck of gaming cards, he could only derive nutrition in the manner that any deck gains nutrition: by the preservation and gaining of life! At once, he felt hope that he could find a way to endure this transformation and he resolved to explain this to his family following their repast.
Later, as Mr Samsa mopped the spilled and ejected food from his chin and lap with his napkin, he apologised to the family for the indignity of his buccal ejections. The shock of Mrs Samsa’s revelation about their son, and his subsequent appearance at table, had caught him unawares and in mid-mouthful. Greta, conversely, had taken to a fit of the giggles – youthful inexperience and levity masking deep awe – and the assembly fell into complete silence, for none had words to offer. After an hour or so had passed, Mr Samsa stood and announced (briefly, tersely) his intention to ablute and retire for the night and, furthermore, suggested the others do the same. There were no objections to this proposal, and soon the living room was empty except for Gregor, lying propped against the condiments – checking and re-checking his mana base.
The room darkened and the long night drew in. Gregor slept fitfully until the dawn, and his little sister crept in. Greta lifted her brother into her hands and carried him into his room. She placed him gently on his study table and regarded him curiously.
“I have had the most outrageous idea, dear brother,” she whispered, “It came to me in the night, for I did not sleep well. I was afraid that I, too, would undergo a change such as yours. I have a mind to make the most of this unusual situation and, perhaps, we can all profit from your alteration!”
“Speak!” replied Gregor, “I am listening.”
“Well,” his sibling continued, “I am competent in card play, though not in Magic: The Gathering itself, but I feel confident that – with your assistance, of course – I could play you at the next ‘Mox-A-Month’ open tournament. We could sell the prize and be able to buy enough meat and potatoes to last us all another week! What do you think?”
“Greta – do I hear you correctly? Am I chattels to be toyed with? How could you conscience the abuse of my person in such a manner?”
“Think, dearest brother!” pressed Greta, “You have seen that you are of a strong design – you are efficiently constructed and composed of a great many rarities; why lock yourself away in this room, sulking, when you could be triumphant… And earning the money you can no longer gain from Mr Nelson’s employ?”
Gregor mulled over the idea and could find naught wrong with it, apart from a lingering indignation at his being so used. “And yet,” he pondered, “And yet this could be my big chance to shine! This could be the very opportunity for which I have been striving all these hobbying years!” Moreover, why else had he endured the errata web-sites, the exams, the rigorous after-hours play-test sessions, the scouring of a thousand (nay! ten thousand) strategy articles and tournament reports, and the endless discussions with peers? Why? For this very moment!
“I will do it, Greta,” answered Gregor, “I shall be entered this coming weekend, and let no man try and prevent it! This will be hard, Greta – you must endure a week of intensive training; you must learn my intricacies, my innermost combinations. We must become as one Magic entity – one hand always upon my deck, one eye to the sideboard.”
“Oh yes, Gregor,” enthused Greta, picking him up and dancing around the room alternately hugging him to her perfumed blouse and raising him, exultant, toward the ceiling.
The Church Hall on the morning of the Mox-A-Month was a forbidding and foreboding venue. Greta arrived by Tram, escorted to the outer doors by her nervous mother, and stepped up to the registration desk. The registrar, a tall youth with short hair and wide vowels, spat a soggy pork-rind into an ashtray before drawling a request for “yer nime.”
”Greta Samsa,” she replied, courteously, handing over her entrance fee. Mrs Samsa immediately fainted in the lobby and had to be carried out to the Tram station, where she was laid against the ticket machine.
The tall youth, his short hair long in the tooth, scribbled something incomprehensible onto his DCI form, scribbled something reprehensible onto a beer mat, and handed a deck list template to the nervous competitor: “Fillet Inn,” he chewed, and then turned his attention to the waiting line behind Greta. “That bloke looks really gay!” an unknown voice proffered; “Is that a…girl?” questioned another.
Taking her place at a remote table in one of the corners – furthest away from the Traders, while a low murmur of curiosity was directed towards her – Greta whispered to her brother: “What do I do now?” she asked. Almost inaudibly, the deck of cards laid before her on the surface responded: “Take out my cards and sort them into unique piles; then write each card name on the form and the number of that card next to it. Do the same for my sideboard… But beware! Any mistake would see us ejected in disgrace – for there is no Magical sin more grievous than the misrepresentation of one’s deck!”
Nervously, Greta completed her task and, exhausted with concentration and worry, she leant back in her chair and mopped the sweat from her brow. A group of youths passed her, giggling into their Pepsi Max, and muttering comments such as “Easy!”, “Look! There’s Mrs. Bye,” and “What are those things in her jumper?”
However, the events of that seemingly nondescript afternoon were to be writ large in the annals of not only the Mox-a-Month tournament, but of Magic: The Gathering itself. Greta and Gregor’s partnership proved all-dominating that day: at no point was she mana glutted nor was she mana short; when a creature was required, one would be drawn – as would removal, evasion, and the necessary components for the combination! Life gain would occur at the most opportune time, while life loss could be used most fortuitously in the drawing of additional cards. Come the evening, and Greta’s mother to bring her homeward, this unknown female scrub walked away with a Mox Jet and new-found respect.
Thus, over the coming months, did the siblings continue; attending as many local tournaments as was possible, given Greta’s continued need to complete homework and household chores, with each one ending in victory and further prizes which could be sold, or traded, for more domestic comforts. Of course, the composition of her deck could not be kept secret and, as is the way of such things, it found its way to the Internet and, thence, to every club or amateur society in the country. However, while many players were able to construct their own copy, and achieve a measure of success in their own right, they were unable to overcome Greta – for is it not a base truth of Magic: The Gathering that one is not only engaged in battle versus your opponent but, more often than not, with your own deck as well? Accompanied by the secret soul’s service of her brother, Greta was freed from the latter and able to concentrate solely on the former.
As the weeks elapsed, Gregor grew more discomforted as he rested in his newly-commissioned velvet playmat on the bookshelf in his bedroom. Success was bringing food and other luxuries into the Samsa home, but he found himself with a continuing feeling of emptiness; there, in the depths of his plastic sleeves (just up and to the right of the authenticity holograms) was a longing that remained unfulfilled. In the hot spotlight of Standard glory, Gregor and Greta no longer talked of education, ambition, politics, and, most especially, religion; instead, they conversed on matchups and ranking points. Gregor worried that his family weren’t investing a portion of the winnings for their future, for he neither felt (nor envisaged) a time approaching when he would return to normal – and, as a Standard deck, he felt the nagging anxiety of upcoming set rotations. What would they do once he was no longer legal? And so Gregor resolved, as the light of early morning dawned – reminiscent of his first morning as a Magic deck – that he must guide his sister toward the ultimate goal before his tenure was passed: he must take her to the World Championships and to the Winner’s podium!
The vast hall, previously home to grand athletic occasions and the odd pugilistic exchange, thrummed with the background radiation of booster draft side-events, trader-haggling and excited conversation; the latter, as those who were there will testify concerned one subject and one subject alone: Greta Samsa –would she (could she) become the first female Magic: The Gathering World Champion? It was the morning of day Four of the competition and, with Greta in eighth position and six rounds of Standard to be played, it look almost a surety. Greta had become the heroine, the poster girl, for female players everywhere – her meteoric rise giving hope and inspiration to a class of player heavily discriminated against. Greta was sat in the cafeteria, surrounded by girls and women, laughing and joking and unnervingly confident and unaffected by the pressure of her position; while, in her shoulder pack, stuffed beneath the Dr Pepper and breath mints, lay her brother – oppressed by linen and liquid marzipan; suffocated by anti-halitosis and his sister’s indifference. Over the previous three days, Greta had not spoken a word to him; silently, she had accepted his clandestine promptings as to which cards to draft, which lands to play and which creatures to destroy. Even once the day’s play was done and she retired to the room she shared with the Hungarian team’s second ranker, she addressed him not.
She did this not for any malicious reason; indeed, she imagined herself protecting them both. Greta had inwardly resolved that no action or mode of behavior should expose her brother, and his condition, and had decided that conversing with her deck of cards would draw overmuch attention and suspicion. Additionally, she could not allow insinuations and investigations to jeopardize the Championship or shame her new-found sisterhood.
Thus, cautiously, Greta proceeded with her plan but neglected to inform Gregor which lead, in his ignorance of the safety plot, to his melancholic loneliness increasing. Gregor wept silently into his sideboard; his tears collected in his deck protectors and began to dampen the cardboard – thus was the Samsas’ downfall sealed.
It was during the final round before the knockout portion of the Grand Tournament that an idle remark, made amongst the excited audience, was overheard by a patrolling Level 4 Judge and reported to the Administration section. Two further Judges, previously engaged in the management of informal booster drafts (and in great need of some stimulating activity), were conscripted into service and marched to the main hall and to the table of Greta Samsa. The remark, throwaway as it seemed at the time, concerned an emerging problem with Greta’s deck-protected cards: several individuals seemed to have expanded, their plastic sleeves parted, fish-mouthed, at their opening. The moisture from Gregor’s weeping had begun to evaporate, re-condense, and, as a result, warp the fabric of his cards. Unfortunately, to those assembled around the table, this would (at first glance) seem to be an illegal, if somewhat obvious, marking technique and, in line with REL5 rules, the Judges suspended the match, recorded the array of cards in play and removed Greta’s deck for scrutiny.
The officials treated Gregor roughly, ignorant as they were of the true condition and nature of this artifact; they discarded his box to the side of their registration table, having accidentally torn a tab from the lid area, and pile sorted his component parts according to individual card name – slapping them belligerently onto the work surface. They flexed corners that had curled; they removed specimens and tested them for authentic material composition (the “bend”); they wiped excess moisture with soiled handkerchiefs; catalogued, cross-referenced, and cogitated. They made a list of cards that offended their eye and that could also be construed as in breach of rules – then they catalogued, cross-referenced, and cogitated further.
It is often written that, should you seek a pattern in that which is random, then a pattern you shall find; this day (of all days), the revered Judging staff sought a pattern in the cards that were spoiled and, o! wicked fate, such a pattern was identified.
“Disqualification!” roared the Head Judge to his venerable team; at once, as a band, they scribbled reports onto forms and lodged paperwork with the DCI.
“Disqualification!” he bellowed to the assembled thousands in the main Arena, sternly-scanning the crowd in a display of breathless authority.
“Disqualification,” he said, face screwed up in wasp-chewing and bad-smelling, to Greta Samsa as she sat at the Top Table, her opponent equally angered by this cheating and joyful at his own promotion.
“Disqualification,” he repeated in a scornful whisper, before throwing the disarrayed Gregor – all torn box, naked and half-removed cards, creased, warped and silent suffering to the be-felted play table.
Such was the woe and wailing from Greta as she arrived home to the arms of her mother and the confusion of her father, that she threw the tatty assemblage that comprised her sibling carelessly into his room, letting his arrangement burst from its plastic bag and scatter across the floor and under the bed. Gregor, in this disintegrated state, felt neither energy nor inclination to recombine himself. In silent dejection he remained, scattered and unformed. From the adjacent room Gregor could hear the partially muffled exchanges between father, mother and sister: Mrs Samsa was soft and soothing, warm and comforting; Mr Samsa was harsh and accusatory, angry and frustrated; Greta was simply inconsolable.
“I wish that Gregor was not in that hateful form,” she shouted, “He has brought nothing by disappointment, shame, loss, misery, distaste, disillusionment and disqualification. All good things have been taken from me! How I wish he had never set us upon this path. How I wish he were dead!”
In the cool blackness of his former bedroom, Gregor heard everything that was said; every tear-accompanied, handkerchief-wiped, bitter, and regretful word of it and, in the same darkness, he breathed more weakly and more shallowly until, at last, as the clock of the Town Hall chimed the midnight, he breathed no more.
Bereft of all spirit, of all life-essence, Gregor set his counter to zero and expired.
In all things dark there is a light to be found and, in the case of Gregor’s final passing, as they cleared the curled, dry, papery remains from the floor, Greta (blinking back thick tears) was pleased to discover one or two power cards that remained in Good/Near Mint condition. These she dispatched to eBay and recovered enough funds, after some furious bidding spurred by the provenance of the cards themselves, to purchase a copy of the base software for the latest Internet-based, three-dimensional roleplaying game world.
Ultimately, the family retained, and framed, a single land card from Gregor’s deck as a memorial to their late son/sibling and it hangs, inconspicuously, upon the lounge wall above the fireplace between a landscape and a laughing girl; it’s scripted caption reads, simply: “No Man Is An Island (Although He Can Sometimes be a Plains, Mountain, Swamp Or Forest).”