by Christoph Weber
“Stool transplants?” I asked my agent. “Please say you’re joking.”
Angela shook her head. “I swear I’m not making this up. It started with mice. Researchers transferred the stools of outgoing mice into anxious mice—”
“Hold on just a second. What the hell does an outgoing mouse look like?”
“Mickey, I guess. The outgoing mice explored larger areas, ventured farther into the light, and so on. The important thing is, when researchers transferred the stools of outgoing mice into anxious mice, the recipients became more outgoing. And when they gave people fecal transplants for digestive disorders, they found the same thing—recipients take on characteristics of their donors. Point being: the microbes in our guts exert significant influence over our personalities.”
“Wait, what if the donor is a douche? Would getting a transplant from the asshole of an asshole make you an asshole?”
“Unfortunately, yes, that is quite possible. It seems that you are largely what’s in your gut. And if you really want to be a star, you need to have star stuff inside you.”
“You mean star shit.”
She waved her hand dismissively. “Semantics. If you want to do this, I can get you the good shit. From someone who practically oozes charisma.”
“Please don’t use the word oozes. I’m already grossed out.”
“Look, Jack. You came to me, throwing a tantrum because you don’t think you have charisma, and I’m offering you a possible solution. Take it or leave it. But if you want to do this, I think I can arrange it. For the right price, of course.”
I thought about that for a moment. Continue in this Sisyphean hell of commercial gigs, or take a shit-filled turkey baster up the ass and maybe get what it takes to make it big?
“I’m not that desperate.”
Angela shrugged. “Suit yourself.”
After my rejected audition for Fast and Furious 13: Driven to Death, I asked the casting director why she didn’t want me.
“I need someone with charisma.”
I clenched my jaw so hard I thought my teeth might shatter. I didn’t even care if they did. Every week I whitened my chompers, and how had my supposed moneymakers ever paid me back? “Let me try again. I can be charismatic!”
She waved me off. “Some things you can develop. A clear voice, a fit body. Other things you just need to have. Like a strong jawline, and most importantly, charisma.”
“Do you even know what charisma is?” I shouted in frustration.
Apparently accustomed to pissed-off rejected actors, she tilted her head in thought, unfazed by my outburst. “I suppose it’s a bit like pornography. It’s hard to define, but I know it when I see it. And I’m sorry to say, Jack Ficus, but I do not see it in you.”
I drove to my agent’s office so fast and furious Vin Diesel himself would have shit the passenger seat.
“I want in,” I told Angela. “How do we do this? Is a stool bank like a sperm bank, where I just pick out a donor I like?”
She shook her head. “The FDA regulates human feces as a drug.”
“Please tell me you made that up.”
“No. You need a valid reason to get a transplant from a stool bank, and unfortunately, wanting a personality change is not an approved condition. To get what you need, we’ll have to go to the black market.”
“Shouldn’t it be called the brown market?”
“Is this even safe? I don’t want to purchase the rock-star coolness of Tommy Lee if it’s bundled with hepatitis.”
“Thereare some scammers out there. I heard of one guy selling ‘Trump Dump.’ The people who bought it found out too late that ‘The Donald’ was really dog shit. We can do it right, with lab screening and all that, but it won’t be cheap.”
“I’m literally going to pay for shit, aren’t I?”
“Yes. But not just any shit. Star shit.”
“Who are you thinking?”
“Well it’s charisma you’re after, right?” she asked, the corners of her mouth turning up. “How does Robert Downey Jr. sound?”
“Ooh. That guy does ooze charisma. How would you get a sample?”
“It won’t be that hard, actually. Even the stars shit. I know a guy, former P.I. It’ll just be a matter of figuring out Downey’s patterns and disabling a toilet.”
While Angela organized the theft of Robert Downey Jr.’s stool, I flew back to Canada to pay my wife a surprise visit.
I snuck in using our hide-a-key and found her in the kitchen, reading. Apparently thinking it was a home invasion, she threw the book at me. Thankfully it didn’t hit me in the face. I could never pull off the scarred bad boy look.
“It’s me, Kate! Jack!”
“Jack! What ….” After a few curses we embraced, holding each other until I picked up her book, Dementia Care. “How’s your mother?” I asked as I handed it back to her.
Kate nodded upstairs. “Sleeping. As long as she’s around friends and family, she seems to do okay. What about you?” She looked at me hopefully with her perfect blue eyes. “Are you here to stay?”
“I have to fly back to Hollywood tomorrow.”
Disappointment drove out the hope. “Did you get a big role?”
“Well … no. Not yet. But things are looking up.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Jack, how much longer are you going to chase this pipe dream?”
“As long as it takes.”
Her other eyebrow, apparently feeling left behind, ascended to join the other. They looked like raised pinball paddles. “What about us?”
“I need to focus on my career.”
With the attention only an actor can give to facial expressions, I studied her eyebrows as they descended to neutral and then past, furrowing above her sapphire eyes in an exquisite expression of disappointment morphing to …
“Do you have any idea how selfish that sounds?”
Anger. Definitely anger.
Frustration flooded me. Kate and I had been together since high school—she knew I’d always wanted to be famous. I squared my shoulders in classic Shakespearean monologue pose. “Look, Kate. I love you, but I’m not getting any younger and if I give up now, my dream’s going to crumble and slip through my fingers like … like aged paper.” I thought that last bit was a nice theatrical flourish.
Kate, not so much.
She called me conceited, narcissistic, presumptuous—about every word for vain I’d ever heard. A rather impressive collection of synonyms, actually.
I was all of those things. But I was also determined. I was going back to Hollywood, and this time I would do whatever it took to be a star.
After a week of liquid food capped off with an Ex-Lax milkshake, I returned to Angela’s office.
“There are two ways to do this,” she said, holding a sample labeled Robert Downey, followed not by Junior, but by Number Two. “We can put it in capsules, and it will get to its destination after a layover in your stomach. Or we can take the direct, but slightly more harrowing flight straight to the intended target.”
“I’m not eating shit, Angela.”
“Very well.” She reached into her drawer, pulled out what looked like a hot water bottle with a thin tube emerging from its stopper. The tube resembled a tapeworm, and for a moment I wondered if I really wanted to go through with this. But I did say I’d do whatever it took.
After filling the bag with equal parts saline and Robert Downey Number Two, Angela asked me if I did yoga.
“Do you know plow pose?”
“Good. Drop your pants and assume the position.”
I took off my slacks and underwear, lay on the floor, and brought my legs up over my head.
Angela wheeled over an IV infusion stand with the enema bag hanging off it. “You ready?”
I stared up at her between my knees. “Let’s get it on.”
“I am Iron Man!” I shouted as I left the casting director’s office, having just landed a supporting role in Fast and Furious 14: Still Not Dead. A few passersby shot me strange looks, then hurried away. “You flee now,” I mumbled. “But soon you’ll wish you’d gotten my autograph when you had the chance!”
I’d been a bit worried about how much Robert Downey Number Two would really do, but after our first shoot, all doubt evaporated. It was a small role, sure, but it was film, and the performance just poured out of me. It flowed like … like a river. Yes, like a river.
The director pulled me aside afterward, smile on his face, and asked where I’d found the inspiration.
“Pulled it right out of my ass,” I told him, knowing it didn’t even matter what I said, because now I said it with charisma. I could have read Mein Kampf in its original German and made it sound sexy. Okay, maybe not Mein Kampf, but I could’ve made German sound sexy and that’s no small feat.
Charisma wasn’t the only thing I gained, though. I started to get this constant, restless itch like a rash in my soul, an itch I could only scratch by getting a buzz. For years I’d whitened my teeth religiously, and I suddenly found myself smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. When they weren’t enough, I started washing down the taste of tobacco with bourbon, and when that didn’t do it I moved on to harder drugs.
This went on until the day my phone woke me beneath the Hollywood sign. Around noon. With no pants on. Next to a small lab's worth of drug paraphernalia and a blow-up doll.
“Jack, where the hell are you?” Angela shouted. “I’m looking at the LA Times right now, and the lead local story is about a half-naked man riding a camel through the Hollywood Hills, screaming ‘I am Iron Man!’ The photo’s grainy, but I swear to God he looks like you. Please, please tell me I’m wrong.”
I looked around. No camel. I glanced down at the doll. She appeared to be wearing lipstick, and had “Helga” written on her forehead. Also in lipstick. “Did he have a … passenger?”
Helga, where did you come from? “Was he wearing a Hawaiian shirt?”
“Sure looks like it.”
“Angela, I think we need to talk.”
A homeowner found the camel in the oasis of her swimming pool, unharmed except for a fresh coat of vomit. It belonged to a mobile circus touring Hollywood, a circus to which I later made a sizeable and anonymous donation.
“I’ll never lay blame on an addict again,” I told Angela. “I can’t do Downey anymore. His microbiome is fucking insatiable. I want to be someone else.”
“Well that role as Ray Bradbury is coming up. Maybe you should go for intelligence this time?”
“Good idea. But they need to have charisma, too. And no history of addiction.”
She scratched her head in thought. “How about Neil deGrasse Tyson?”
“Oh hell yeah.”
That night I received a care package from Kate. She even included my favorite skin care products. God, she was perfect. I gave her a call.
“Hi, Hon. Thanks for the package. I was almost out of moisturizer.”
“I miss you, Jack.”
“I miss you, too. But … my rent is due and I’m a bit strapped.” I left out the reason. “Think you could help me out?”
She sighed. “Just come home.”
“Now? I’m finally getting some film roles! Why don’t you move here?”
“Because I have my own career!”
I shouldn’t have even asked. Kate ran a non-profit to help Vancouver’s homeless—she’d never abandon them.
“And I’m not asking my mother to leave the only place she still has memories of,” she went on. “People need me here. This is our home. This is where our friends and family are. This is where I want to start our own family, like we talked about.”
A remix of “Ice Ice Baby” pounded through the thin wall separating my apartment from my DJ neighbor. It was almost enough to make me pack up and go back to Canada. Almost.
“Things are finally looking up, Kate. I can’t quit now. Our kids will need proof they can achieve their dreams.”
“They’ll need a father, Jack.”
“I’ll be a father. I just … I guess I need proof that I can achieve my dreams.” I could almost hear her eyes rolling. “Just give me a year. If I haven’t made it big by then I’ll give it up. But at least then I can say I tried.”
“If things work out, are you really going to move out of Hollywood? If you make it big, what then?”
“Then ….” I swelled with excitement at the thought. “Then you’ll be married to a rich and famous actor.”
Kate, saint that she was, sent the rent money. But after the Bradbury role I didn’t need help. The reviews glowed. One of was titled “Jack Ficus: Hollywood Swiss-army Knife.” The author shrewdly pointed out how rare is the talent that can transition from Fast and Furious action to channeling Bradbury’s brilliant curiosity.
But with Neil deGrasse Tyson in me, I didn’t have to channel anything. I spent all my free time reading, delving into the mysteries of science. I developed a particular fascination with the cosmos, but the more I learned, the more insignificant my life became. I mean, what was I supposed to do with this tidbit?
Entropy is leaching the light and life from every one of the billion trillion stars in our universe, which will one day grow forever cold and dark.
I never wanted to know that! I came to Hollywood to be important, to be a star, and I suddenly felt like my greatest aspiration was to be a mote of dust in a sandstorm. Driven to depression, I narrowed my focus from the cosmos to the microbiome.
Our bodies contain more microbial cells than human cells.
Having experienced firsthand the extent to which those microbes make us who we are, I began to wonder if there was really such a thing as an individual, and even took to calling myself “we.” At least until Stephen Colbert made fun of us. Asshole told everyone we were turning into Gollum.
My existential angst drove me back to drugs. I ate magic mushrooms like they were candy, just so that my place in the universe would make some sense.
“My life is shit” began to take on a whole new meaning. Shit had given me fame! And yes, shit was making me lose my mind, but shit also provided the substrate to grow those mushrooms, which were giving me the only relief from madness I could find.
“I’m too smart,” I told Angela after four straight days of tripping, spent mostly in philosophical conversation with the hookah-smoking caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland. Which later turned out to be a park bench. “Neil’s gut flora is trying to run my mind, and it’s like trying to run a Corolla on jet fuel. I want his charisma, but I can’t handle his intellect.”
“How about Matt Damon?”
“Hmm. He definitely has charisma, but he might be a little too smart.” An idea flashed in my obsessively curious mind. “Could we create a cocktail?”
“What do you mean?”
“How about Matt Damon mixed with an equal part The Rock. That might dumb Damon down a bit.”
“I could probably arrange it, but it’ll cost double, of course.”
“Come on, Angela. You know what I’m making from The bRAdburY Chronicles.”
“I hope that’s not the blender you use for your wheatgrass smoothies,” I told Angela as she mixed my cocktail, the Dwayne Damon.
“Bought a new one, which I’ll tack onto your bill. Now I hope you’re still keeping up your daily practice?”
Neil deGrasse Tyson didn’t seem to have much interest in yoga, so I was a bit stiff as I settled into plow pose, but I plowed on through.
Dwayne Damon was a god.
“The emotional intelligence of Eddie Redmayne with the masculinity of Schwarzenegger,” a noted reviewer wrote about my performance as Hemingway. “Jack Ficus has immortalized himself as one of the greats.”
But it wasn’t enough. I didn’t want to be one of the greats. I wanted to be the Muhammad Ali of acting.
I signed so many autographs I developed carpal tunnel syndrome, but even all that attention didn’t help. My need for adoration kept growing, nagging at me with an intensity I could only compare to the cravings of Robert Downey Number Two. Work was my drug, fame my high, yet the more I attained, the more I needed.
Kate called as I walked out of Ben Affleck’s office.
“Hi, babe! I just landed a role in the new Batman!”
“That’s great. I’m really happy for you.” She took a long pause. “But I haven’t seen you in over a month. Come back for a weekend. Or, if you’re too busy, I’ll come see you.”
“I’ll visit when I can. Just not right now—I need to start getting into character. They want me to put on twenty pounds of muscle. I’m going to be practically living in the gym.”
“You told me you were going to LA to prove you could make it big. You’ve proved it. When will it be enough?”
I thought about that for a moment, then admitted to myself that millions of fans hadn’t done anything to assuage my aching need for fame.
“Look, Jack … I don’t know how to say this, but if you won’t—”
“It’s Jack Ficus!” someone shouted from across the street. I glanced over to see two pretty women playing frogger through traffic to reach me.
“I gotta run, babe,” I said to Kate. “Call you later!”
“Can we get a selfie?” the brunette asked as I hung up.
I licked my lips. Not because they were dry, but because women find a bit of gloss highly attractive. “Let’s make a sandwich!” I said, putting one arm around the blonde, one around the brunette. “A slice of Ficus on sourdough and rye!”
After we’d snapped a selfie, the blonde asked me for an autograph.
“Sure. What would you like me to sign?”
She answered with a downward tug on her shirt collar.
Okay, being famous did have some benefits.
After a longer than normal signature, I pulled my hat out of my briefcase, put it on nice and low, hid my face beneath my Ray-Bans and rushed down the street to my next meeting, iPhone in hand, so I could read some glowing reviews about my recent performance in Terminator 7: Protraction.
“Riveting,” one headline proclaimed. “Heir to Arnold,” said another. You know, the usual stuff.
But in the comments section, a message from xDonKeebals69x caught my eye.
Jack Ficus is a shit actor.
That nagging need for adoration, briefly soothed by putting my John Hancock on a rather perfect left breast, washed over me. Screw you, xDonKeebals69x. Screw you sixty-nine times. I stepped out into the street, frantically scrolling for another positive review.
Tires screamed on pavement.
I looked up from my iPhone. The truck swerved, tipped. I dashed for the sidewalk. Too late.
The last thing I remembered was a storm of sparks showering me like hellfire.
“Nurse! He’s coming out of it!”
I could just make out Angela’s voice, as if I were underwater, with her calling from above. I fought to the surface of consciousness. Opened my eyes.
“Where am I?” It came out more like “wormy,” but after a couple tries I got it right.
“Hollywood Presbyterian,” the nurse answered. “You had a bad accident. What do you remember?”
Sparks showered through my mind. “A truck?”
“Yeah,” Angela said. “A truck that threw you about twenty feet.”
“You sustained a serious head injury and several fractures,” the nurse explained, “one of them compound.”
I guess I’m not Iron Man after all.
“They’ll heal, but first we have to get rid of the infection.”
“Where’s the infection?”
I didn’t understand, but judging from the pain racking every part of my body, that sounded about right.
“You have sepsis,” the nurse went on.
“Yeah,” Angela said. “You picked a hell of a truck to get hit by.” She held up a copy of People magazine. The cover photo was of the paramedics carrying my broken, sludge-covered body away from an overturned septic truck, the back of which read “Honeywagon: Yesterday’s Meals on Wheels.”
If there is a god, at least they have a sense of humor.
Later, my doctor explained that the amount of antibiotics they’d pumped into me had essentially wiped out my microbiome.
“You’re going to need a stool transplant to reestablish a healthy gut flora,” she said. “Have you heard of that procedure before?”
As soon as the doctor left I asked Angela for her iPhone. Every tabloid ran the story, most of them full of mocking jokes, each one a pinprick in my pride, deflating me. Everything I’d worked for, all those fans I’d collected, and now I was the butt of everyone’s jokes. I Googled my name. The first image was of me drowning in sewage with the caption, “Shit happens.”
“I know it looks bad,” Angela said. “But we can use this. Everyone loves a comeback story. Maybe I can get samples from Oprah and Liam Neeson. That would be one hell of a cocktail for resilience.”
Someone knocked at the door before I could answer.
“You have a visitor,” the nurse said as she walked in.
Followed by Kate.
She rushed to my bed, threw her arms around me. “I came as soon as I could.”
In that moment, my body broken by a goddamn septic truck, my ego deflated by the laughs of all those whose adoration I craved, an insight worthy of Neil deGrasse Tyson burned in my mind: This was the only person whose love I could count on. This was the saint I wanted to spend my life with.
“Hi, Kate. I—” My voice cracked. “I want to go home.”
“You mean that?”
“Yeah. I’m done with all this shit.” I looked up into Kate’s blue eyes, shimmering through my tears like sapphires beneath her raised eyebrows, and knew I wasn’t good enough for her. She deserved better. Someone committed. Contented. Grounded. She deserved someone… like her.
“Kate, I know this is going to sound weird, but I need to ask you for something.”
About the Creator
Christoph Weber’s short fiction has appeared in Nature and VICE’s Terraform, among other publications. As a winner of the Writers of the Future Award, he was flown to Hollywood, asked to interview random strangers on the Walk of Fame, then challenged to finish a short story in one day. So don't blame him if it's shitty. If you were juvenile enough to enjoy "Such Stuff as Stars are Made of," we recommend the South Park episode “Turd Burglars,” for which Christoph is probably owed royalties. Or at least Matt and Trey’s spice melange.
World's Shortest Creator Interview
If you were to write a ten-volume epic fantasy starring a punctuation mark, which would it be and why? What would the one-sentence plot summary be?
The em dash, because it's MacGyver in a Hawaiian shirt—casual and adaptable.
Plot summary: A dashing protagonist—Em—must utilize her versatility to battle an army of mindless commas before they can splice her—all while she lays plans to full stop first the evil colonel of the Syntax—a real colon—and then her own annoying formal brother, prophesied to commit the horror of joining dependent clauses even though he’s not even all that bad yet—he’s just a semicolon.
You've just discovered you're a zombie. As if they are in control, your legs take you to the local Walmart, where no one seems to take notice of you because your rotting face is concealed by your cheery Hello Kitty facemask. You're hungry. What do you do next?
I go to the sporting goods aisle for a fishing rod, then the tools section for a hole saw and vacuum cleaner (with a hose measuring at least six feet). Then I use above items to drill skulls and vacuum brains while maintaining proper social distance.
About the Artists
Our very own D Chang is a designer and game writer from Austin, Texas. His short fiction has appeared in Avast, Ye Airships! and the Cryptopolis science fiction anthology, and you can get a free demo of his janky retro JRPG, which was formerly on Steam. He does the Space Squid illustrations, editing, and other squid stuff.