Fiction Fragments: Deesha Philyaw

Last week I had the pleasure of chatting with Christopher Golden about his new novel, Red Hands.

This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes National Book Award finalist Deesha Philyaw.

Deesha Philyaw’s debut short story collection, THE SECRET LIVES OF CHURCH LADIES, is a finalist for the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction. The collection focuses on Black women, sex, and the Black church. Deesha is also the co-author of Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce, written in collaboration with her ex-husband. Her work has been listed as Notable in the Best American Essays series, and her writing on race, parenting, gender, and culture has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, Brevity, dead housekeeping, TueNight, Apogee Journal, Barrelhouse, Harvard Review, The Baltimore Review, Electric Literature and elsewhere. Deesha is a Kimbilio Fiction Fellow.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Deesha, and congratulations on your nomination for the National Book Award for Fiction. Tell me about your collection of short stories, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies. Where do the stories come from? Which stories are your favorites in the collection and why?

DP: Thanks, Michelle! The stories come from a few places: a deep nostalgia that I have for my childhood, growing up in the South; memories of growing up in the church, and in particular, of church women; memories of women outside of the church, including my mother and my grandmother; and primarily, my decades-long interest in dissatisfied women, driven by my own dissatisfaction at various periods in my life. I love all the stories in the collection, but my favorites are “Peach Cobbler,” because the main character and her awful situation just get inside you, and lots of readers have told me that it’s their favorite; “How to Make Love to a Physicist,” because it’s a nerdy love story with a happy ending in an otherwise fairly dark collection; and “Jael,” because the main character is incredibly brave, and I just want to hug her.

GMM: The Church plays an important role in Black communities in the United States, and has almost become a trope in fiction about Black people since it seems to be such an integral part of culture. I didn’t go to church as a kid and didn’t have the experience of going to service on Sundays. What would you tell a heathen like me about The Church and why it is important to Black communities?

DP: It goes back to slavery, when belief in a better life to come sustained our ancestors. At the same time, for some enslaved people, Christianity fueled rebellion. Post-Emancipation, the church became a cornerstone of Black community; the first schools for freed people were in churches. HBCUs grew out of churches. And of course, the church was at the crux of the Civil Rights Movement. And now, even as the church holds less sway in the lives of younger generations, it’s influence is still felt–sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. And it’s important to note that Black Christians are not a monolith, though we typically think of the conservative Black evangelical denominations when we talk about “the” Black Church.

GMM: Many writers create stories based on personal experiences and even base characters on people they know. The vampire in my novel, Invisible Chains, is based on a real person with the same name. Not to put you on the spot, but is anyone from your past or who you currently know going to read these stories and say, “hey, that story is about me”? Will they be happy, or will they be upset?

DP: The story “Dear Sister” is about five half-sisters who have the same father. I have four half-sisters. There are aspects of that story that are drawn from our lives, but not in ways that any of my sisters would point to a character and say, “Hey, that’s me!” I wanted to respect their privacy, so I started with a premise that reflects our real-life situation, but fictionalized from there. One of my sisters is a nurse, but she is nothing like Tasheta! Also, there’s lots of mother-daughter stuff in these stories, some (but not all) of it influenced by my complicated relationship with my late mother. But there’s no mother character that’s my mom, and no mother-daughter situation that is us. I lost my mom to breast cancer in 2005, and even though we made peace before she died, there was emotional unfinished business that it seems I needed to work out in these stories. There are pieces of me and pieces of us sprinkled throughout, and that happened organically, subconsciously. I didn’t set out to write a collection about mothers and daughters, but that’s what it is, in some respects.

Also, “How to Make Love to a Physicist” was inspired by a real person, a physicist who I had a crush on. Alas, the crush was unrequited, but my interest inspired this story. This person knows he inspired the story, and he gave me some technical help with the science stuff in it.

A fragment from “Peach Cobbler,” a story from Deesha’s short story collection, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies

My mother’s peach cobbler was so good, it made God himself cheat on his wife. When I was five, I hovered around my mother in the kitchen, watching, close enough to have memorized all the ingredients and steps by the time I was six. But not too close to make her yell at me for being in the way. And not close enough to see the exact measurements she used. She never wrote the recipe down. Without having to be told, I learned not to ask questions about that cobbler, or about God. I learned not to say anything at all about him hunching over our kitchen table every Monday eating plate after plate of peach cobbler, and then disappearing into the bedroom I shared with my mother.

I became a silent student of my mother and her cobbler-making ways. Even when I was older and no longer believed that God and Reverend Troy Neely were one and the same, I still longed to perfect the sweetness and textures of my mother’s cobbler. My mother, who fed me TV dinners, baked a peach cobbler with fresh peaches every Monday, her day off from the diner where she waited tables. She always said Sunday was her Saturday and Monday was her Sunday. What I knew was that none of her days were for me.

And for many of those Mondays off and on during my childhood, God (to my child’s mind) would stop by and eat it—the entire 8 x 8 pan. My mother never ate any of the cobbler herself; she said she didn’t like peaches. She would shoo me out of the kitchen before God could offer me any, but I doubted he would have offered even if I’d sat right down next to him. God was an old fat man, like a Black Santa, and I imagined my mother’s peach cobbler contributing to his girth.

Some Mondays, God would arrive after dinner and leave as I lay curled up on the couch watching Little House on the Prairie in the living room. Other times, my mother and God would already be in the bedroom when I got home from school. I could hear moaning and pounding, like a board hitting a wall, as soon as I entered the house. I would shut the front door quietly behind me and tiptoe down the hall to listen outside the bedroom door. “Oh, God! Oh, God! Oh, God!” my mother would cry. I could hear God too, his voice low and growly, saying, “Yes, yes, yes!”

Even before he started coming by on Mondays, I had suspected that Pastor Neely, the pastor of Hope in Christ Baptist Church, was God. He was big, black, and powerful, as I imagined God to be. My very first Easter speech, memorized in kindergarten during Sunday School, was “Jesus is the Son of God,” but I didn’t find it odd that Black God could have a blue-eyed, blond son. Pastor Neely was dark, his wife was pale, and their son, Trevor, who was around my age, had gray eyes and wasn’t too much darker than the Jesus whose picture hung all over church. Plus, midway through every Sunday service, Pastor Neely, his wife, and Trevor stood in the front of the sanctuary and collected a love offering from the congregation as the choir sang, “I Love You (Lord, Today).” So it was easy for me to deduce that Pastor Neely was the “Lord.” My mother’s cries of passion through our bedroom door confirmed it.

Do you have a fiction fragment? How about your friends? Would you like to recommend someone to me aside from yourself? Drop me a line at chellane@gmail.com. See you in 2021!

Guidelines: Submit 500-1000 words of fiction, up to 5 poems, a short bio, and a recent author photo to the e-mail above.

It’s Hard to Be the Hero When Everyone Treats You Like a Villain: Jake Ballard

Back in March, when we first went into quarantine and I wasn’t sleeping and my anxiety put me on an all junkfood diet, I allowed myself to be pulled into a very deep rabbit hole. By which I mean, I started watching Shonda Rhimes’ hit TV show, Scandal (2012-2018). I had just finished watching all five seasons of How to Get Away with Murder (HTGAWM) that were available on Netflix (you can now watch all six seasons), so I was excited to watch another Rhimes show with a woman of color protagonist in a position of power. I mean, there aren’t exactly a ton of those to choose from, so I decided to invest some downtime during quarantine to what I thought would be mind candy. To be fair, both shows provide equal measures of suspense, stimulating romantic intrigue, and lots of violence and murder. I was hooked after watching the first episode of HTGAWM, but I gotta be honest, even though I enjoyed watching the first few episodes of Scandal, it didn’t really get interesting for me until Jake Ballard showed up and became my new TV boyfriend. Buckle up, this is a long post.

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President Fitzgerald Grant, Olivia Pope, and Jake Ballard

Warning: Spoilers, Sweetie

Jake shows up in S2: Ep. 14: “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” and meets Olivia Pope at a coffee shop in a seemingly random situation, in which both of them lie to each other about what they do for a living. His timing couldn’t be better, since Olivia has been on a relationship break from her main squeeze, President Fitzgerald Grant. There was a spark of hope for me that Jake would become enough of a love interest for Olivia that she would stop seeing Fitz, but let’s face it, you’d need a goddamned firehouse to separate those two. No matter how many times each of them say things are over between them, we all know better.

Things start to get interesting in the next episode when Olivia goes to the Pentagon to talk to Jake Ballard while investigating the murder of a young woman who slept with important men in DC to gain information that she sold to the press. Her friend, David Rosen, is being accused of killing her. Turns out, Captain Jake Ballard works in military intelligence. While Olivia questions him as if he is guilty of something, Jake turns on the charm and asks her out two times during her visit. They both have professions that prevent them from sharing certain details about what they know or don’t know. While he’s concerned about her questions, you also get the sense that he sees her as a much needed challenge.

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While making plans for a date with Olivia over the phone, we learn that Captain Jake Ballard is full of secrets, because he has surveillance cameras in Olivia’s apartment and is watching her from the comfort of his living room on an enormous flat screen TV. This super shady behavior puts him in the villain category. However, his directness, take-charge attitude, flirtatiousness, and dark sense of humor make him very sexy. I mean, beyond his tall, dark and handsome appearance.

Their first date doesn’t go as well as Jake planned, because first, Olivia is late, second, he hates the restaurant she chose, and refers to it as “a place where dates go to die.” Third, Olivia refers to their date as a meeting, which he corrects her about, and fourth, she leaves before the end of the date when she gets a call from her team of super spooky problem solvers.

Jake’s next big secret is that he’s friends with Fitz. Old friends. They were in the navy together. In fact, Fitz hired Jake to watch/stalk Olivia, but I get the sense that Fitz doesn’t know that Jake is also spending time with her in person. And, Fitz hasn’t told Jake that his relationship with Olivia has essentially been business up front, party in the…well, you get the idea.

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Jake continues to watch Olivia, and his interest quickly becomes more than the assignment Fitz gave him. To say that Jake becomes obsessed with Olivia would be an understatement. And, much like the handsome and charming stalker/serial killer, Joe Goldberg, in Netflix’s You, Jake’s inappropriate behavior started plucking at my heart strings. Don’t judge me. Stalker or not, Jake Ballard is a super sexy man with a high profile job in the government. Each detail we learn about him makes him more and more appealing. At least, up to a point.

There’s a scene in which he’s watching Olivia while she’s crying in her bedroom. While watching her, he’s concerned about her well being, and calls her to ask her out on a second date. Which she turns down, most likely due to her feelings for Fitz after their latest encounter. Olivia is in her bathrobe sitting on the edge of her bed. After she hangs up with Jake, she goes to her closet and starts getting dressed. Jake has the opportunity to watch her undress, but turns off his TV instead. Placing him in the not-so-sure category. I mean, he is watching her without her consent as a favor to her emotionally unstable lover, but he sets boundaries based on the feelings he’s developing for her.

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Is Jake a villain? It’s too soon to decide. Should Olivia has sex with him? Absolutely.

Olivia keeps making plans and then canceling on Jake. However, it is clear that his interest in her is strong enough that he is willing to be patient. Also, Fitz suspects that Olivia is seeing someone new, because he witnesses her laughing while on the phone with Jake. When Jake checks in with the President, Fitz demands to know who Olivia is dating, which puts Jake in an awkward position. Not only has Fitz essentially confessed to his relationships with Olivia, but Jake is the guy Olivia is technically dating. So, he lies to Fitz, and tells him she isn’t dating anyone. Which isn’t a complete lie, given the fact that Jake’s attempts to date Olivia keep failing.

Slowly, Jake earns Olivia’s trust, which is complicated by the fact that we still don’t know if we can trust Jake. But, he also allows himself to trust her. After they work together to bring American hostages home safely, their professional relationship begins, opening the door for their personal relationship as well. After Olivia stands him up for the third or fourth time, Jake shows up at her apartment and asks her to take a chance on him. She tells him she isn’t ready to date, because she can’t stop thinking about another man (Fitz). He tells her to close her eyes, and then kisses her. After kissing her, he leaves, which is brilliant because now, she’ll be thinking about him, too.

If you think things are complicated now, oh Honey, you haven’t seen anything yet. The next complication is that Jake is having secret meetings with a shadowy character who asked him to murder the Director of the CIA and make it look like a suicide. Then, when Jake realizes that Olivia is looking into the possible murder of the CIA director, the shadowy character tells Jake to “take care of Olivia Pope.” We can only assume that he wants Jake to kill her. Soon after, Jake and Olivia have sex for the first time. Confused? You should be.

That same night, while Jake is asleep, Olivia gets out of bed to get a glass of water. She looks around his place and picks up the remote control to his TV, which is when she discovers that he’s been spying on her. Obviously, she freaks out and tries to run. Jake tells her it isn’t what she thinks. They fight and he tackles her. She hits her head hard enough to get a concussion and Jake takes her to the hospital. Before she passes out, he explains that he is watching her to keep her safe, and about that time, a man in a black balaclava enters Olivia’s apartment, which they can see on Jake’s TV. So, I guess it’s a good thing he’s been spying on her, right? Maybe, but stalking is still a crime and is often a sign of more terrible things to come. It’s a red flag and not the ideal way to begin a relationship. Stalking is a trope in horror/paranormal romance for a reason. It is the behavior of monsters, or at the very least, dangerous men.

When she wakes up in the hospital, Jake is there and feeds her a story about being attacked at her apartment and that he saved her. He asks her to stick to that story if anyone asks. Moments later, the President shows up. That’s right, the President is so high on his white privilege that he sees nothing wrong with visiting his mistress in the hospital and putting a secret service detail outside her room to keep her safe.

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This is when Olivia learns that Jake not only knows him, but has been watching her at Fitz’s request. Talk about awkward. So, not one, but both men she is romantically involved with have been lying to her. Together. And…too each other. Yeah, like I said, it’s complicated. And now, uncomfortably weird, because Jake sees Fitz embracing Olivia while she’s in her hospital bed, and realizes that Fitz is the man Olivia is pining for. Fitz apologizes to Olivia for hurting her, but she refuses to accept his apology and tells him to leave her alone. He leaves, but tells Jake to keep watching her. And suddenly, Jake realizes he’s the other man.

Before Olivia leaves the hospital, Fitz tries to get Olivia back. Again. He “demands a second chance,” and in a moment of weakness, she kisses him. But, sticks to her guns and refuses to take him back. At this point, I got excited. Because I started to believe that Jake had a real chance with Olivia. The shadowy figure asks Jake to deal with Olivia again, and Jake asks to have someone else assigned, because he feels there’s a conflict of interest. When the shadowy character asks if he means because of his relationship with the President, Jake lies and says yes. But we know it’s because of his feelings for Olivia. But Jake is reminded that he doesn’t have any choice in the matter and we begin to understand that Jake isn’t just in military intelligence, he truly is a spy. And, as it turns out, he works for a secret agency within the government that the government doesn’t even know about.

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So, not only is Jake’s life complicated by the fact that he’s falling in love with the woman he’s supposed to he stalking for his friend, and killing for his boss, but now that Olivia knows that Jake has been spying on her, she puts her walls back in place to protect her feelings again. Despite the fact that Olivia keeps pushing Jake away by venting her anger at him, he refuses to give up on her. Which is good, because when Olivia’s life is in danger, Jake repeatedly saves her at the risk of losing his on life.

The second time he saves her life, Olivia learns that 1) Jake is part of B613, the secret agency she knows about because one of her team members used to work for them, and 2) Jake explains that the reason someone is trying to kill her is because she is dating the President. At this point, Olivia’s perception of Jake changes because she knows he is risking his life to keep her safe.

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After saving her life this time, Jake comes clean with Olivia and tells her that sleeping with her was his mission (B613), and says goodbye to her. Before he leaves, she tells him to close his eyes, and kisses him the same way he did to her when she was trying to forget Fitz. By telling her the truth, he believes that his chances with her have ended, but in reality, he is now more appealing to Olivia because she knows he cares about her. Concerned about Olivia’s process of decision making? You should be.

Jake disobeyed a direct order from Command, killed another B613 agent, and now his life is in danger unless he figures out a way to make up for this huge mistake or run. Running really isn’t an option. Oh, and I almost forgot. While Jake was stalking Olivia, he had surveillance cameras in his own apartment and captured the two of them having sex in pretty much every room of his apartment. Unfortunately, someone else sees the video and uses it against Olivia. Well, tries to anyway, because Fitz has a worse secret and he forgives Olivia for sleeping with Jake. Fitz keeps up the fantasy of divorcing his wife and marrying Olivia to make her his First Lady. But, Olivia breaks things off with Fitz.

Meanwhile, Jake ends up in the hole — an extreme version of solitary confinement for B613 agents who misbehave. Simultaneously, someone leaked to the press that Olivia is the President’s mistress. And, we discover that the shadowy character who was commanding Jake to kill Olivia, is in fact, Olivia’s father. No shit. For real.

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Her father makes arrangements for her to board a plane and leave the country so that she can disappear. But after having a conversation with the Chief of Staff, she decides to stay. Which further enrages her father, who is disappointed in her for aspiring to only become a first lady, a role he believes to be beneath her. He wants more for her, and thinks she should want more for herself. He’s not 100% wrong.

As we learn more about Olivia’s father, Eli Pope/Rowan/Command, it becomes clear that he wields more power than most high-ranking officials in government. He’s also scary as hell. The most unsettling thing is that he is able to control Olivia by holding whether Jake lives or dies over her head. While Jake is gone, Olivia visits the morgue each time someone matching his description shows up, because she has no way of knowing what has really happened to him. Olivia finally gets her father to release Jake and he doesn’t look so good when he’s dropped off at Olivia’s apartment.

After Jake has a chance to heal for a few days, Olivia decides to kick him out of her apartment. She does so, because she doesn’t want to be caught up in whatever her father is involved in, and she still isn’t 100% sure that Jake hasn’t been sent to continue spying on her even though he emphatically says otherwise.

So, rather than staying under the radar, Jake decides to team up with another B613 spy, Olivia’s employee, Huck, to try to take down Olivia’s father. Which, is really dangerous for everyone involved. Did I mention that we’re only in season 3 at this point? Jake is doing his best to maintain distance, or at least respect Olivia’s boundaries, but it is clear he still has strong feelings for her. So, I got really excited (again) when Olivia invited him to be her date to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.

So, at the very least, they’re friends at this point, right? Except that Jake isn’t stupid and understands Olivia only invited him so that she could see Fitz at the event. He makes it clear that his feelings are hurt and rather than the two of them going back to one of their apartments at the end of the night, Jake simply tells her the evening is over and that he’s upset about how she has treated him.

I’m not going to lie. Each time Jake shows up to save, protect, or comfort Olivia, I would say out loud, “Olivia, you need to forget about Fitz and make Jake your main squeeze.” Sadly, she didn’t listen. I mean, she continues to see both of them, which is admirable on her part, because they are both smoking hot in my opinion, but clearly, Jake is the better option. At least, he is until he gets pushed away too many times. But, we’re not there yet.

At this point in the narrative, Jake has discovered that when Fitz was in the Navy, he shot down a commercial flight that Olivia’s mother was on. It’s a complicated series of events that I won’t delve into too deeply, but essentially Olivia believes that her father is responsible for her mother’s death, and the man she loves shot down the plane. Again, she doesn’t know who to trust. Her heart is broken. But, because Jake is one of the few people trying to help her, I assumed that he would become the best option for Olivia.

One of my favorite lines in the series, is Olivia’s response to Fitz when he says he loves her after she finds out that he shot down the plane her mother died on. When he says, “I love you,” she says, “so what?” That is an excellent response to a man who has hurt you over and over and over. Especially when he tells you to stay away from his rival. Would you stay away from this man?

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Yeah, me neither.

But, things become increasingly complicated when Jake takes Olivia’s father’s position as the head of B613. He becomes Command with the help of Fitz. Before he takes the position, he goes to see Olivia. He kisses her, and tells her, “Whatever happens next, I wanna make sure you know that I loved you.” Why does he say goodbye? Because he knows that as Command, he will be expected to do terrible things that she might not forgive him for in the future. Although, telling someone you love them before saying goodbye is a smidge manipulative.

All right. It’s a bit more complex than that, but at this point in the series, Jake really is the best boyfriend option for Olivia. In fact, in order for Olivia to maintain the ruse that she is not Fitz’s mistress, she asks Jake to be her fake boyfriend. That’s right. This sexy hunk who could have any woman he wanted, chooses to be second best in Olivia’s life because he is in love with her. Does this handsome devil really agree to be Olivia’s “beard” (his word, by the way) to maintain the illusion that she isn’t the President’s mistress? Sure he does.

As terrible as it sounds, Jake’s role as Olivia’s beard allows him to be his wonderfully sarcastic self, while brushing up on his passive aggressive skills. To say that he’s frustrated is an understatement. I mean, he’s maintaining the pretense of being Olivia’s boyfriend, but without the benefits. After he leaves his super goddamned important job early because she needs to talk to him about something, he finally snaps and says:

“Stock. Your. Damn. Fridge. If I’m going to be your fake boyfriend all day, I’m going to come home at the end of it and drink a beer and eat real food. Wine is not beer and popcorn is not food.”

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After which, he begins undressing and Olivia asks him what he’s doing. He tells her he’s going to take a shower and go to bed after having pretend sex with her.

Of course, this is all happening while he is given the highest level clearance in the government with access to all the skeletons in everybody’s closets. Jake is on the path to becoming an extremely powerful man. The problem with that is, power corrupts. And, in his new role as Command, he’s finding it very hard to be all things to all people. Not only is he responsible for protecting the Republic, while being Olivia’s beard and maintaining enough distance from her at the same time so the President doesn’t get jealous, he also has to deal with the ridiculously inappropriate demands Olivia sets for him as she tries to take down her father.

The fact that Jake hasn’t gone batshit crazy yet is a miracle. But, he’s a tough guy and can take a lot of punishment. Which is good, because a lot more is coming his way. Did I mention that we’re still in season 3? As we learn more about Jake through his role in B613, we soon discover that he is one of the nicest serial killers you could ever hope for in a fake boyfriend.

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All of the terrible things Jake has to do in his secret serial killer role (I mean, I guess since he gets paid that makes himan assassin) begin weighing on him. Just because he does terrible things doesn’t necessarily make him a terrible person. Right? In fact, he keeps asking Olivia to save him.

At the end of S3, Olivia finally comes to her senses and runs away with Jake. And they stand in the sun together. I’m not ashamed to say that I cried like a baby because I was so happy that they were finally going to be together. She FINALLY chose Jake. They spend two months standing in the sun together. Apparently, standing in the sun means having sex on the beach with a smoking hot man who worships the ground you walk on.

And then, in S4: Ep. 1, Olivia decides to return to Washington, D.C. after finding out that one of her team, Harrison, was found murdered, despite the fact that she and Jake were happy on the island. Alone. Together. When they get back to the city, Jake tells her that they will only be in town for a few days. She seems non-committal when she agrees. Jake’s fears are starting to come true. He knows that if Olivia becomes reconnected to the life she left behind, it will be impossible to get her to leave again. But more specifically, he knows that if she sees Fitz she will choose the President over him.

Olivia is in denial about the fact that being back in D.C. will jeopardize the happiness they shared on the island. An island located somewhere off the coast of Zanzibar, that doesn’t exist on any maps. You know, a deserted island away from all their troubles. An island where she gets to spend every day with a smoking hot sex machine. Fortunately, Jake is clear-headed enough to help her see the reality of their situation.

Olivia is back for less than a day and already has a new case. She slips right back into her routine like she never left. She plans Harrison’s funeral and intends to go back to the island, but…as it turns out, feeling important is more valuable to Olivia than running away with a man who could easily be the love of her life.

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So, instead of getting on a plane and heading back to the island with Jake, she decides to stay and pick up where she left off. And, as soon as she sees Fitz, you know it’s game on for them and their ridiculously dysfunctional relationship. Jake tells Olivia that he got a hotel suite close to her apartment for booty calls. When she questions his statement, he explains that since they are back in D.C. he also has business to take care of, and he doesn’t have time to live in her apartment and wait around to “service her.” She has the nerve to take offense. Again, Jake is the only one in touch with reality.

But, she hasn’t completely lost her mind. She still has enough sense to make a booty call to Jake’s hotel room. And bonus, she shows up wearing her coat, boots and nothing else.

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Maybe they aren’t standing in the sun anymore, but they still seem to be happy. At least for the moment. The longer they stay in the shadow of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, their chances of riding off into the sunset together get smaller and smaller. But it doesn’t look like Olivia is going to stop riding Jake any time soon.

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Despite the fact that Olivia and Jake are maintaining a sexual relationship, he keeps making the distinction that he is not her boyfriend. Not because he doesn’t want to be, but because she has never officially recognized him as her boyfriend even though they spent two months alone on a tropical island banging each other’s brains out.

I mean, I understand that it isn’t always necessary to define roles in a sexual relationship between consenting adults. However, the only reason Olivia refuses to define her relationship with Jake is because she’s hoping for something, or rather someone better. And, he knows that (and who she wants instead). So, he keeps making it clear that she is the one who defined those boundaries within their relationship and refuses to pretend to be her fake boyfriend anymore. He deserves better. Of course, he’s still interested in having sex with her on the regular though.

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I’d clear my whole schedule to find out what that thing might be. I mean, she knows what that thing is, obviously enjoys it, and yet they are sleeping in separate beds most evenings. If a man as fucking spectacular as Jake Ballard wanted my undivided attention, not only would I clear my schedule for him to do that thing nightly, but I’d find time first thing in the morning, plan a few nooners during the week, and I don’t know, the moment he walked in the door, whatever time that might be.

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Olivia doesn’t share my point of view and is more than happy to piss away really good sex with a smoking hot man who is willing to call her on her bullshit. Which is exactly what she needs. He genuinely loves her. Would do almost anything she asked. Except, be her pretend boyfriend. He needs her to acknowledge her feelings for him. He needs her to choose him first. But he also doesn’t ever expect her to choose him. And yet, he continues to protect her. Even though that means putting his own life at risk.

I know I’ve been painting a rosy picture of Jake, but the more we learn about him, the more that comes into question. I mean, he is a Black Ops spy. We know he’s killed people, but at this point, we have no idea how many people. Admittedly, if my fake boyfriend killed people for a living, I might have some misgivings about making him my real boyfriend.

Who am I kidding? He looks amazing when he’s killing people.

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I mean, he even looks good when he’s digging an unmarked grave to hide the bodies.

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At the beginning of S4, Jake keeps trying to get people to listen to him about what is happening around them now that Olivia’s father is Command again. He keeps trying to tell Olivia that her father has put a hit out on him, and he tries to tell Fitz that Rowan is responsible for assassinating his son. But no one has time to listen to Jake, and then all of a sudden Jake is accused of killing the President’s son. And, since Fitz is already jealous of Jake for running away with Olivia, he can’t wait to make Jake’s life a living hell.

And, when Olivia doesn’t hear from Jake, she assumes that he’s avoiding her. Which is crazy given the fact that he wants to spend all of his time with her if she would allow it. Oh, and it would be great if she publicly recognized him as her ACTUAL boyfriend. It takes her a while to figure out something is really wrong.

The good news is that Jake’s training has prepared him to deal with interrogation and extreme methods of torture. So Fitz’s efforts to get Jake to admit that he killed his son aren’t going well. In fact, Jake manages to push all of Fitz’s buttons instead.

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Fitz allows his jealousy to cloud his judgement and refuses to hear the truth about who really killed his son. Then Jake makes the mistake of saying the thing that no one else is able to say out loud–he tells Fitz that Olivia loves both of them. Which makes them both good guys, because she wouldn’t love them if they weren’t wearing white hats. Even though it’s obvious that Olivia loves both men, Jake is the only one who can say it out loud without having icky feelings about it.

Everyone is out to get Jake and Olivia’s father continues to lie to and manipulate her so that she believes that Jake actually killed the President’s son. So, not only does the President not believe him, but Olivia begins to question the facts. And, after Jake gives up on the notion of proving his innocence, he tries to comfort Olivia even though he knows he will never be her first choice.

Olivia figures out a way to prove that Jake didn’t kill Fitz’s son. But, instead of releasing Jake right away he is kept at the Pentagon so that Olivia can prove that her father was behind the assassination. Jake uses this opportunity to take additional digs at Fitz. He especially likes to remind Fitz that Olivia chose to run away with him and that they are still seeing each other.

Despite Jake’s posturing, he still doesn’t believe that Olivia cares about him as much as he cares about her, and after Fitz leaves the room, Jake tells her he knows that she’d rather be standing in the sun with Fitz. She gets upset that he keeps talking about himself as if she doesn’t care about him.

When Jake is finally released, things get more complicated as he attempts to find and potentially kill Olivia’s father. He’s a bit stressed, so when he arrives at Olivia’s, he’s surprised to see how happy and carefree she’s acting. She has food, beer for Jake, wine for her, and there is music playing. Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ’Bout a Thing” to be exact. And, she’s dancing. He tries to tell her about the danger they need to be concerned about, at least the one he’s aware of, and she refuses to talk about anything serious.

Just to keep things interesting, Olivia is kidnapped by mercenaries that same night, leaving Jake with the most terrifying case of blue balls in history. He’s about to get kinky with his sorta kinda girlfriend. He takes off his clothes, prepares to make her fantasy come true, and then she disappears. Because he’s a highly trained spy, he jumps into action and begins looking for her immediately. But the men who took her are professionals and no one can track her down.

She’s gone for weeks, put up for auction to the highest bidder on the Dark Web, and the President is forced to go to war by the Vice President in order to get Olivia back. Yeah, the Vice President had the President’s mistress kidnapped to make him go to war. This show is not boring. A little over-the-top at times, but never boring.

Neither Jake or Fitz are able to rescue Olivia. An old friend who has connections with the Russian mob through Interpol is able to make the highest bid and rescue her. When she finally gets back to D.C., and after she is interviewed by the FBI to determine if she let any government secrets leak to her kidnappers, Jake and her team take her home and make sure she’s okay. Jake offers to spend the night, but Olivia declines, confusing Jake. Then, Fitz arrives on Jake’s heels, and Olivia throws him out after telling him that he wasn’t the one who rescued her.

Olivia is clearly suffering from PTSD, but she isn’t seeking help. She jumps back into her work and pretends that everything is fine, but when she isn’t working, she’s hiding in her apartment with a gun. She avoids Jake and Fitz, but at least she takes Jake’s calls when he checks on her.

I guess because neither of them are currently sleeping with Olivia, Jake and Fitz slip back into business as usual, and Jake continues his part-time job of stalking Olivia so he can keep tabs on her for Fitz. Confused? Don’t be. Olivia has always been an assignment for Jake, whether he’s watching her for Fitz or her father, his job is to stalk her and report back to whomever is paying him to watch her. The problem is, Jake can’t separate his job duties from his attraction to Olivia. Even though doing the job you love is good advice, in this case, maybe not so much. If your job is to stalk someone, you should try not to fall in love with them. To be fair though, that is an obvious danger of voyeurism.

B613 is in danger of being exposed by former agents and the District Attorney. Jake has warned them to stop because they are all in danger of being murdered. Jake bugs David’s office and finds out that he is planning to trap Jake into testifying, but Jake has other plans that involve killing off agents that are willing to testify against him.

Backed into a corner, we begin to see Jake’s true colors and his mercenary is showing. Olivia has abandoned him for Fitz. Well, actually, she’s been sleeping with another guy who just happens to be a B613 agent, too. Surprise! But we don’t know that yet.

Jake’s in danger or being exposed as a Black Ops spy who has killed a lot of people. No, really. A lot. He is finally pushed to what appears to be his limit, and takes up residence in the apartment across the hall from Olivia without her knowledge. Olivia’s team decides to kill Jake and when they come looking for him, he threatens to kill Olivia if they don’t leave him alone. Would he kill Olivia? Maybe. But it seems unlikely since he’s still in love with her.

Because they can’t guarantee Olivia’s safety, and honestly, because they are a little terrified of Jake, they back off and give up on exposing B613. Jake is now officially a villain. And, as we all know, any villain of note should have an interesting, and often heartbreaking backstory. Jake has that in spades.

Is he really a villain? Not yet. At best, he’s an intriguing antihero who is doing his damnedest to be the hero. And, if he’s really lucky, he’ll win the heart of the woman he loves. In fact, he agrees to testify and bring B613 down with Olivia and her team. Once again, Jake risks his own safety to wear a white hat and stand in the sun with Olivia.

And then, Olivia’s father reappears and begins threatening everyone Olivia cares about unless she puts a stop to exposing B613. Eli Pope is an actual villain, and he’s been grooming Olivia to become just like him some day. And, they both use Jake to do their dirty work. Jake is loyal to a fault. He has been a gun for hire, a convenient boyfriend, and a champion for the causes Olivia insists on upholding no matter how insanely dangerous. Even when he has seriously important work to do, he always seems to be on call whenever Olivia needs him. How long do you think someone can do that without receiving the love and respect they deserve? My guess is not long. Especially when you consistantly give the person you love opportunities to step up and treat you better.

Jake has several part-time jobs, and one of them is wooing a woman who should have chosen him already. As the date of the trial to expose B613 gets closer, Jake stops by Olivia’s office to remind her that he’s got her back, and if she’s scared or needs someone to talk to, his strong, broad shoulders are available for her to cry on. He doesn’t make any sexual innuendos. He doesn’t remind her of how badly she’s treated him. He simply tells her he’s there for her if she needs him. And she seems to be adamantly opposed to accepting his help.

This man is hopelessly in love.

And what does he get for his trouble? He gets mortally wounded by the guy who’s been banging Olivia and almost dies after being stabbed many, many times.

As you might imagine, I had a lot of feelings about this. When the character you care about the most is in danger of dying, and if you’re anything like me and live vicariously through fictional characters, it’s going to hit you pretty hard. When Olivia’s team find him the next morning barely hanging on to life, I was a mess. It takes a very long time to get Jake the medical attention he needs, and because there’s a price on his head, they can’t take him to the hospital. They have to rely on a back-alley Russian doctor who most likely makes a living attending to bullet and stab wounds for the criminal underworld.

So, not only is Jake in danger of dying because of his many, many stab wounds, but then the person who tried to kill him insinuates himself into the situation enabling him to try to kill Jake again. Let’s just say that it’s an exciting episode. Olivia obviously cares about Jake, because she’s terrified of him dying. But her feelings for him are still unclear. She loves him, but she isn’t in love with him. It takes him almost dying for her to admit that she never should have left the island. Well, no duh.

After figuring out that the guy she’s been banging is actually a B613 agent and working for her father, Olivia has her team torture him for information while Jake recuperates in her bed. He has wanted to be back in her bed for a while, but this isn’t what he had in mind.

But hey, he’s still alive.

Jake’s a smart guy. He figures out that Olivia has the B613 agent, Russell, in the apartment across the hall and explains to her that it doesn’t matter how much she tortures him, he won’t talk. Jake tells her he won’t talk because Russell is like him. She gets defensive and says that Jake is nothing like Russell. He says that they were both trained to get close to her, and that they both have a PhD in Olivia Pope, but there’s one difference between Russell and Jake.

He then goes on to say that Command would consider his feelings for her a defect. When he shares with her that essentially she is his greatest weakness, she opens up and finally talks to him about what happened to her when she was kidnapped. Something she hasn’t talked to anyone else about. Instead of using this connection as a way to get closer to Jake, she lets him know that she isn’t going to stop trying to get information out of Russell because she wants to get her father.

Jake’s curiosity gets the better of him and he goes across the hall to meet Russell, have a beer and compare stories about what it is like to be trained by Rowan, Olivia’s father. They bond over the fact that they are both unique among B613 agents. And, Jake explains to Russell Olivia’s role in Rowan’s weird game of control. Proving that Jake definitely has a PhD in Olivia. No one knows her better. Which would be more romantic if he wasn’t her stalker and a serial murderer. And yet, I still want him to have a happily ever after with Olivia.

Jake testifies before the grand jury about B613. And minutes later, all of the jurors are brutally murdered. Rowan/Eli Pope blackmailed the First Lady who is also a senator into giving him the list of names so that he can kill them. So, everyone who listened to Jake’s testimony is dead except Jake and the District Attorney.

Jake once again offers Olivia the option to run away and she turns him down because she’d rather keep trying to take her father down which makes everyone around her potential victims. So, when Olivia decides to involve the CIA, shit gets real. She and Jake are thrown into prison, because the head of the CIA is too afraid to arrest Rowan. How many times is Jake going to take a bullet for Olivia — literally and figuratively?

At the end of S4, Jake tells Olivia his mission is over. B613 no longer exists. He has delivered her home safely. Once again, he tells her that he is in love with her, but she’s in love with Fitz. He walks away and she is confused. She thinks of their time on the island. But instead of running after him and telling him that she loves him, too. She lets him walk away and goes to the White House to see Fitz that night.

To say the least, I was disappointed. I mean, I wouldn’t kick Fitz out of bed for eating crackers, but Jake Ballard is far more interesting. And WAY more murdery without being a vampire, werewolf, or the Devil himself. In fact, Jake Ballard is the first non-supernatural character I’ve been interested in to this degree in a long time. Come to think of it, the last human I obsessed over was also a murdery secret agent.

At the beginning of S5, Olivia is outed as the President’s mistress and decides to run instead of dealing with the fallout. She takes a case and dives into work rather than dealing with reality. Who comes to help her? Why, Jake Ballard, of course. Although he told her his mission was over, he can’t seem to stay away from Olivia. He wants to help her and always wants to come to her rescue in the hopes that she will see him as a hero and accept him as her main squeeze.

While Olivia is working a case/running away from her life, she is emotionally distraught over her relationship with Fitz, but asks Jake to spoon her on the filthy motel room bed they share. In fact, when Jake returns from his beer run, he climbs onto the bed next to Olivia as if it is the most normal thing in the world, and she doesn’t question it. They are lying together like a couple. A couple who has faced a lot of obstacles and trauma, but are still there for each other. Olivia got Jake out of prison. And Jake runs to Olivia’s side when she’s in trouble. Is it just me, or should they run off to Vegas and get hitched? I mean, Jake is Olivia’s lover and in many ways, her best friend. But she doesn’t treat him as well as she should. Without hesitation, Jake comforts her and they spend the night together with him holding her. He doesn’t think twice about doing it. Because, as he’s said to her time and again, he loves her.

With the case solved, Jake returns Olivia to her apartment in D.C. and asks if she’s going to be alright. She says yes and gets out of the car into a throng of reporters asking if she is the President’s mistress. She turns to the camera, and says yes. I wanted her to say no. I wanted her to get back in the car and go somewhere with Jake. But that didn’t happen.

Jake’s response to Olivia’s “truth” is to go to her office where her team is trying to put out the fire Olivia started and “help” her. He tells them that she doesn’t need help, because she finally did the thing she tells everyone else to do, “do not lie.” When the teams asks Jake what the plan is, he says, while opening a plain brown paper bag, “My plan is to sit here and drink the majority of this vodka. Get remarkably wasted, and watch the world end. Anyone care to join me?”

And then, while Olivia is in the White House, after making out with the President in the Oval Office and pissing off everyone else around her, she calls Jake to tell him that she thinks she made a mistake and he says, “Just say the word, Liv, and I’m on my way.” She tells him she’s good, there’s some awkward silence on the phone, and then she tells him to have a drink for her. His response is, “Done.”

Unpopular opinion: Olivia Pope is a monster. There, I said it.

When Jake sees the news report that the Louvre is on fire, he goes to visit Eli Pope in prison. Jake asks Eli if he is responsible for the Louvre, which is part of a plan called Lazarus 1. Which seems to mean that Jake has never left B613 and that B613 isn’t really gone, just on temporary hiatus. Jake accuses Eli of trying to regain power and threatens to kill whomever Eli is working with on the outside.

While the media is pulling Olivia’s life apart and trying to make her look like a power-hungry harlot, and the writers use this as an opportunity to highlight the use of racially coded language or dog whistle politics in the media for the audience, Jake heads to Paris to follow the trail of clues leading to who is kicking off the plan Eli pretends to know nothing about. And, while in Paris, Jake runs into someone he never thought he’d see again: his wife.

Jake thought his wife, Elise, was dead. Surprise! They were supposed to meet at Grand Central Station and she was an hour late, and he assumed that she had been murdered. He tells her he grieved for her and that he loved being married to her. So, of course, I was hopeful that Jake might get a little happiness. He’s reunited with a woman he loved and they are obviously happy to see each other.

But, Jake Ballard isn’t allowed to have long-term happiness. First, Elise gets shot in Paris, and when Jake visits her in the hospital, she admits that she didn’t meet him at Grand Central Station because they are both spies. He asks her to come back to the States with him.

Olivia randomly drops by Jake’s for a visit and meets Elise, but he doesn’t tell her she’s his wife. Olivia goes to him for advice about her relationship with another man. When she is scared about what is going to happen next in her life, she goes to Jake. And, because he seems to know her better than anyone else, I mean he did stalk her for a long time, he always tells her what she should do and he’s almost always right.

Jake should be getting his happily ever after, right? Wrong. Elise is the person on the outside who has been helping Eli Pope regain power. When Jake finds out, he’s less than thrilled.

Olivia finds herself in a situation where she might have to marry the President, and who does she call? Jake. She asks him what she should do about whether or not to marry Fitz, and he points out how ridiculous that is, given their history. She says that she’s sorry and that he’s the person she talks to when she needs a friend, and then he hangs up on her after saying he’s hanging up.

Then she calls him again to tell him that she’s going to marry Fitz. She says that she wanted to tell him before he heard about it on TV, and his response is “whatever.” She starts to say that she needs him to feel a certain way, and he tells her that she’s not allowed to need him for anything, or ask him for anything, because that’s Fitz’s job now. And, he hangs up on her again.

He decides to leave with Elise, and they plan to meet the next day at the train station. But when he shows up, she’s already dead. Why? Because Olivia arranged for her father to be freed from prison. There is an amazing scene in which Olivia comes home to find Jake in her living room sitting in the dark drinking bad wine, which he complains about when she asks why he’s there. He tells her to sit down, she ignores him and then he shouts at her to sit down.

Typically, when Jake is with Olivia, he is there to keep her safe, but she has found herself on the wrong side of Jake Ballard and he can be quite scary. As always, he points out to her that he knows her better than anyone, including herself. He calls her a hypocrite because her story about wearing a “dumb white hat” is bullshit since she just left a mass murderer out of prison to serve her own agenda. He points out that the President isn’t impeached and she doesn’t have a wedding ring on, two things that she needed to make happen at any cost. Jake tells her that Elise is dead and Rowan killed her, then he corrects himself and says, that she killed her, because she let Rowan out of prison. Then he says this wonderful line, “The woman I love killed the woman I used to love, or the woman I used to love killed the woman I love. I can’t figure it out.” He yells at her some more, she tries to justify her bullshit and then he stands in front of her menacingly before kissing her and leaving.

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Jake Ballard is out of fucks to give.

The President asks Jake to hunt for Rowan, and Jake let’s her know that when he finds him he’s “going to look him in the eye and put a bullet in his head.” Apparently, Jake can hold a grudge and when people fuck him over, his solution is to start killing people.

Of course, Olivia doesn’t believe that Jake’s serious about hunting Rowan. And when her father comes to see her to tell her that someone is trying to kill him and that he’s a victim, she decides to call Jake. Actually, she summons him to the Oval Office. After Olivia tries to convince Jake that her father is in danger, he lets her know that he isn’t down for any more of her bullshit.

“What did you think? That I’d come here and spoon you? Give you a shoulder to cry on, listen to you talk about all the dark places Rowan built inside of you? That train has left the station and you do not get to ride this (he means himself) anymore. If you want someone to talk to, tell your boyfriend that you just let his son’s killer out of prison. See how that works out.”

Olivia gets vindictive and accuses Jake of being petty and jealous because she chose Fitz instead of him. But their argument, that I hoped would come to fisticuffs, was interrupted when Fitz comes into the office and they pretend they aren’t having a lover’s spat. Is it a lover’s spat when you fantasize about killing the other person?

Soon after, we discover that Olivia has a secret. While Fitz is waiting for her at a state dinner that she helped to plan, she is at Planned Parenthood getting an abortion that she won’t be able to tell anyone about. There is no one she can turn to for support because she has essentially burned her bridge with Jake and is a prisoner in the White House.

And, when Fitz asks her where she was? She can’t tell him the truth, so they have a fight about all the terrible things that are wrong with their relationship. They both air their feelings of resentment, and Olivia admits that she preferred Fitz when he was unavailable. Fitz tells her he hates that she’s always right and that they tried. But their current situation makes it impossible for Olivia to continue to be his girlfriend.

So, as a completely unexpected turn of events, Jake moves in with Olivia’s father because he finds out that he wasn’t Lazarus and honestly he has nowhere to go. Or does he? Six months after Olivia and Fitz break up we find out that Olivia has started having dinner with her father again. She tells him she doesn’t want to come by the house since Jake is there. Which is funny, because when she gets home, Jake is waiting outside her apartment and tells her she’s late. And then Olivia pretends that she wants him to leave and then they jump each other’s bones and have epic foreplay before heading to her bedroom. I guess Olivia is allowed to ride that train again. Ride, Olivia, ride.

The President asks Jake to investigate leaked information from the NSA. While they’re catching up, Fitz asks Jake if he talks to Olivia, to which Jake says no. But he has a smirk on his face. He isn’t exactly lying. He’s having sex with her, but they aren’t having a relationship. They are friends with benefits without the friendship. Like, she acts disgusted when Jake tries to show her actual affection. Not only are they not friends, but they are also working against each other on the same case.

Jake loves Olivia. Well, at the moment he loves to fuck her. But, he can’t just sit around waiting for Olivia to come to her senses and fall in love with him. He has aspirations and he’s worked hard to get to where he is in his career in the military and government. He needs a day job beyond secret agent, mercenary, and Olivia’s doormat. So, what does a super spy with lots of bloodstains on his resume do when he’s looking for a new job? He kills the competition. Literally. Jake essentially murders his way to the top. He’s not afraid of hard work or getting his hands dirty. And, by getting his hands dirty, I mean blood and soil from unmarked graves.

After the suspect Olivia is looking for turns up dead, and they figure out Jake killed him, Olivia gets a little upset. Especially when Fitz appoints Jake as the Head of the NSA. Which Jake knew about and didn’t tell Olivia. While he’s still living at her father’s house. Potentially shady? Yeah, totally. I guess Jake is accepting his role as a villain. And, he looks effing stunning doing it.

Olivia confronts Jake. And her father dresses her down, telling her to follow their example and get some real power, and refers to Jake as his son. Which always makes me a little uncomfortable given his relationship with Olivia, and that is going to get even weirder in the coming seasons. Like really weird. Like Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia weird.

As much as I would love to keep yammering at you about Jake Ballard and his insanely dysfunctional relationship with Olivia Pope, I think I’m going to leave it up to you to discover Jake’s fate. Will Olivia pull her head out of her ass long enough to realize that Jake Ballard, regardless of his many murdery flaws, is an ideal partner as she continues punching her way through glass ceilings? Or, will Jake continue to make terrible mistakes in the hopes of winning Olivia’s love only to be disappointed again? With the Winter holidays just around the corner, and since we’re all stuck in our houses anyway, why not devote roughly 5 days and 4 hours of your holiday break to binge watching Scandal. It is delightfully entertaining, with a cast of characters so frustrating that you’ll talk to your TV. So, find a warm blanket, make some popcorn, pour yourself a nice big glass of wine, and get ready to fall in love with Jake Ballard. Scandal originally aired on ABC and is currently streaming on Hulu.

Fiction Fragments: Jewelle Gomez

Last week is spoke with poet, lyracist and writer Donna Lynch about the quiet horror associated with growing up in the suburbs.

This week, I have the pleasure of chatting with one of the writers who has inspired my work, and whom I admire as a scholar, a writer, and an activist, Jewelle Gomez.

Jewelle Gomez (Cape Verdean/Ioway/Wampanoag) is a writer and activist and author of the double Lambda Award-winning novel, THE GILDA STORIES from Firebrand Books. Her adaptation of the book for the stage “BONES & ASH: A GILDA STORY,” was performed by the Urban Bush Women company in 13 U.S. cities. The script was published as a Triangle Classic by the Paperback Book Club.

She is the recipient of a literature fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts; two California Arts Council fellowships and an Individual Artist Commission from the San Francisco Arts Commission.

Her fiction, essays, criticism and poetry have appeared in numerous periodicals. Among them: The San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, The Village Voice; Ms Magazine, ESSENCE Magazine, The Advocate, Callaloo and Black Scholar. Her work has appeared in such anthologies as HOME GIRLS, READING BLACK READING FEMINIST, DARK MATTER and the OXFORD WORLD TREASURY OF LOVE STORIES.

She has served on literature panels for the National Endowment for the Arts, the Illinois Arts Council and the California Arts Council.

She was on the original staffs of “Say Brother,” one of the first weekly, Black television shows in the U.S. (WGBH-TV, Boston) and “The Electric Company” (Children’s Television Workshop, NYC) as well as and on the founding board of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). She was an original member of the boards of the Astraea Foundation and the Open Meadows Foundation.

Twitter: @VampyreVamp
Website: jewellegomez.com

Three Questions…okay, Five Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Jewelle. I can’t tell you how excited I am to have you as a guest on my blog. Thank you for being here. Thank you for being a source of encouragement and inspiration. And, thank you for being supportive to me as a new writer. When I reached out to you back in 2019 to ask if you’d be willing to blurb my novel, Invisible Chains, I took a risk not knowing if you’d respond. One of the sayings that drives me to take risks, is that if you never ask, the answer will always be “no”. What risks have you taken as a writer, and what advice would you give new writers about taking risks in order to create their most authentic work?

JG: Writing The Gilda Stories was taking a risk of sorts because several lesbian feminists and African American writers insisted that it was going to be insulting to women and lesbians. They thought Gilda would be just another predator reinforcing negative stereotypes. But I think an even bigger risk was when I asked Audre Lorde to read the manuscript which at that stage was just the short stories. She responded that she didn’t care for short stories much or vampires but she agreed to read it. I held my breath the entire time she talked until she said yes! Her response was really positive and she was the person who first said it must be re-edited and presented as a novel. That was a choice my publisher, Nancy Bereano agreed with enthusiastically! I’d recommend that beginning writers stay open to listen to critiques of their work. Sometimes criticism is meaningless but sometimes there are important things to hear–like my book was really a novel. Don’t be afraid that others can tear down your work, only you can do that. And don’t be afraid to imagine the lives of characters who don’t look like you and do the work to make them real. If I hadn’t done that there’d be no vampires in my oeuvre!

GMM: Until recently, I didn’t realize The Gilda Stories was your debut novel. I think it’s interesting that as black women writers, we both chose to write vampire novels that deal with slavery and its affect on the American psyche. Your novel and Toni Morrison’s Beloved were inspirations to me. What inspired you to write The Gilda Stories? Where did this narrative come from and why did you decide to make it a vampire novel?

JG: It’s heartbreaking how this society hasn’t begun to address the ripple effects of slavery on our present-day culture. It seems more important to dismiss history as irrelevant while the police kill black people with impunity as if it were 1860 and not the 21st century. The novel grew out of an incident on the corner of my street when I lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I’d gone to the corner to use a telephone booth (remember them) one evening and two drunk black men walked by and stopped to harass me with lewd descriptions of what they’d like to do to me (more ripples). I became furious, asked my friend on the other end of the line to hold on as I set the phone down. I turned to the men and screamed at them like a wild thing! And I wouldn’t back down. Finally one brother said to the other, “Let’s get out of here man, she’s crazy!” And I did go a little mad; if there’d been a weapon nearby I would have used it. Meanwhile my poor friend heard the screaming and worried she should be calling the police to save me. I hung up, went back to my apartment and was shaking with fury at that verbal assault that I and other women endure every day. Adrenaline was coursing through me and I sat down at my typewriter and began the first Gilda story. In the early draft Gilda does kill the guy and toss his body in the Hudson River. After I calmed down and went back to look at the story I wanted to explain her superhuman strength, and I’d always read vampire fiction so I thought that would be the character’s secret.

GMM: It’s been almost 30 years since The Gilda Stories was published. It has been adapted for film and the stage, and it celebrated a 25-year anniversary with an expanded volume. I’ve been stressing out because people keep asking me when the sequel to my novel, which was released just last year, is coming out. Why did you decide after all this time to write a sequel to The Gilda Stories? What stopped you from writing the sequel sooner?

JG: I spent three years adapting two chapters of The Gilda Stories for the stage (along with Toshi Reagon) for the Urban Bushwoman Company and then toured with it for a year. So I was a bit burned out for a while. That experience sent me back to the stage and I’ve been writing a trilogy of plays for the past decade commissioned by New Conservatory, the queer theatre here in the Bay Area. Cheryl Dunye optioned Gilda for a limited TV series last year so I’m hoping we get to see that soon. But all along I did write new Gilda pieces for different anthologies. I kept in mind they’d be for a new book which I call Gilda Interposed because rather than a sequel the new chapters take place in between the current novel’s chapters.

Don’t be distressed that people ask about the next book…it’s one (unfortunate) way they have to express their admiration for the current work! I’d worry when they stop asking!

GMM: You have accomplished a lot in your career(s) as an academic, as a writer and as an activist. Which of your accomplishments are you most proud of, and what accomplishments do you still have your sights set on for the future?

JG: I feel very strongly that the different aspects of my career are all facets of my activism; I’m most proud of that. As a teacher and director of the San Francisco State Poetry Center and Archives; the 30 years I spent as a grantmaker for government and private foundations; writing the many essays, short stories and plays–I looked at each position through my lens as a lesbian feminist of colour and was conscious always of how I could affect the institutions and the people who were being touched. Holding on to that political perspective means a lot to me and it wasn’t always simple.

As for the future I look forward to seeing Gilda Interposed (which is both darker and funnier) find a publisher and fans. About ten years ago I finished a comic (non-vampire) novel, Televised, about a group of African Americans attending their college reunion and experiencing the effects of their youthful black activism. Again the ripple effects of slavery are alive in the racism they faced on their college campus in the 1960s and are still there decades later when they return. I think this is a good time to finally find a publisher for that. And I have two more plays outlined: in one I give new life to lesbian characters who’ve been demeaned in the work of others, also a comedy. And the second is about the Native American girls basketball team in 1904. If I’m still alive after that, who knows!

GMM: Aside from the fact that you wrote one of my favorite vampire novels of all time, I think the one thing that stood out to me the most in your bio was that you were on the staff of the television show “The Electric Company”. Growing up, I loved that show more than “Sesame Street” and wondered what your role was in creating one of the coolest, most diverse shows on Public Television.

JG: I’d been a production assistant in Boston at WGBH TV (1968-71) on one of the first weekly, black television shows so was hired for the production staff of “The Electric Company” right out of college. It was a job I was ill prepared for because of the complexity of the unionised environment in NYC and the rush of creating pilot shows. Again ripples of racism…for optics they needed to hire a person of colour and didn’t consider how I might not be up to the task. I had little to do with shaping the show but learned so much from working with the educators and writers about how to imbed effective messages in silly little skits. I was inspired watching some of the most immense talents of the time perform. And I made one of my dearest friends there. I’d met Morgan Freeman earlier when he’d done a TV drama in Boston and in the NYC studio he was my one friend. When I was fired he and his (then) wife, kids and I became very close. His encouragement staved off my deep depression from being unemployed in NYC; abandoned in an expensive apartment by a roommate when she realised I was a lesbian; and the death of my great grandmother who’d raised me. His support helped me decide to get my MS in Journalism from Columbia. So I’d say “The Electric Company” gave me more than I gave it.

I Brought You Into This World 1892
for Toni Morrison, who showed me the power of death 

Samuel looked into his wife’s deep brown eyes as he squeezed the life out of her—or at least he thought he had. 

I’ve heard several versions of this story but wasn’t sure how close to truth any of them came. I understood, though, that one beloved woman, abused as a child, had grown up to seduce and manipulate others to be as destructive as the uncle who’d destroyed her childhood. I suppose it was that history which made Eleanor’s cruelty almost invisible to me. Over the subsequent centuries, tales of abuse of children never ceased to wring my heart with a barbed pain. But people had begun to speak of Eleanor and Gilda in one whispered breath infused with romance. All began to unravel for me in Eleanor’s salon where she held sway over the almost elite citizens of the still rustic Yerba Buena. And over me.

This evening, I was rejoining Eleanor, eager for the intimate warmth emanating from her presence. I noted how the green velvet of the draperies matched the green of her eyes and was thrilled at the manner in which her voluminous gown was caught so tight in her corset it made one wonder how she could breath. Of course, breathing was not an ordeal for either of us. It was then that Samuel, an early conquest of Eleanor’s, burst through the door and marched toward her. He was not uncommonly tall nor short and quite fit. His tailor must have worshipped him because he was never less than exquisitely turned out. Except tonight it was all slightly askew.

“I’ve finally come to you a free man, my darling,” he said in a low, tremulous whisper as he arrived at the small table where Eleanor sat. With our preternaturally acute hearing it almost sounded as if he whispered in my ear as well as Eleanor’s. He noted the table was set with places for two. “And I see you’re expecting me.”

“No, I am not,” Eleanor’s voice was unmistakably unwelcoming. Please leave my salon and make an appointment if you wish to see me on a future evening.”

From my place by the curtains I could see rage pass over Samuel’s face and I thought to step out and be prepared to defend Eleanor. Fortunately, I remembered that although she was diminutive in size, Eleanor was not of meager strength herself. Additionally, she had been the one to bring Samuel into our dark life so he would not risk hurting his maker. 

I use the phrase ‘dark life’ not to denote negativity. In fact, dark to me means rich like fertile soil; warm as were the dark faces of the family I lost to slavery; or unbounded like the night sky. I know so many, even in this unruly place of Yerba Buena, look upon the darker races with scorn—free Africans, Chinese railway workers, Mexican vaqueros, the indigenous tribal peoples—are no more than paving stones on the White’s path toward riches. For Whites he have little value beyond what our sweat can produce or to serve as receptacles for their lust or anger. I knew Samuel to be one of those who felt this way so tried to avoid his company.

He moved closer, towering over Eleanor as he said. “She’s dead. I did it for us.”

“Should I ask who?” Eleanor’s icy tone almost frosted the glass in her hand which sparkled with the effervescent wine that was gaining popularity.

“You know who.”

“Does your wife have no name?”

“She doesn’t need a name now.”

“Please cease your nattering and remove yourself or I’ll have you removed.”

At that I stepped from the shadow of the drapery and faced Samuel. I too am of medium height and build, although my shoulders are of extra width because of my labour on the plantation when a child. My physical vessel is complimented by my finely tailored wool and silk purple jacket and split skirt. I wear my thick hair in a braid wrapped as a crown on my head and my dark skin now shines with a mist of angry perspiration. The hatred in his eyes was a fire he would not contain but for the audience around us.

“Good evening, Samuel,” I tried to employ the even, musical tones that often served Eleanor so well.

“Ahh,” he barely glanced in my direction as his voice raised in pitch. “You are interviewing for a new maid. I’m so sorry to interrupt. We’ll talk at another time.” He must have seen the flame in my eyes because he turned so quickly, he was barely visible as he left the salon.

“Gilda, I am sorry for that. Samuel is impossible.” Eleanor looked up at me with a smile that felt like sunshine; the sunshine that those of our nature could never fully enjoy. Ringlets of crimson curls caressed her handsome face as if she’d not a care in the world. “He’s famous for his fabulist nature. He’ll say anything to get my attention.”

“Even confess to murder?”

“I suppose.” Eleanor responded. “But murder may have to brush closer to him than just his wife.” 

I gasped and Eleanor said with the sweetest of tones, “Dearest Gilda, let’s not speak of death when we have so much life to live together.”

The initial stoniness inside her voice and the ease with which it melted into honeyed tones sent chilled ripples through my entire body. Without her speaking another word I understood she was opening a door she expected me to walk through. A door to the true death for her former lover; her creation which she wished to discard…for me.

***

Do you have a fiction fragment? How about your friends? Would you like to recommend someone to me aside from yourself? Drop me a line at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Guidelines: Submit 500-1000 words of fiction, up to 5 poems, a short bio, and a recent author photo to the e-mail above.

Fiction Fragments: Denise N. Tapscott

Last week I talked with Jade Woodridge about the significance of why she writes about children in her dark speculative fiction, and she share an excerpt from her story, “The Sweeper Man.”

This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes horror writer Denise N. Tapscott.

Denise N. Tapscott was born and raised in California. She left her heart in San Francisco, but somehow managed to leave her soul in New Orleans. When she’s not creating and cultivating her characters, she enjoys dining on spicy tuna rolls, sharing a bottle of red wine with friends and watching the latest flick (especially scary films). From time to time this radiant left-handed pirate will even challenge others to a fencing match or two. But, watch out. This Gemini is determined to win!

As a member of the HWA, one of her greatest joys is publishing her first novel Gypsy Kisses and Voodoo Wishes as well as the short story The Price of Salvation.  She’s currently working on a collection of short stories called The Friends and Foes of Grandmother Zenobia as well as a sequel novel, Enlightening of the Damned.

Website:  www.denisetapscott.com
Twitter:  @DeniseNTapscott
Instagram: @pyratesunny
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/TheDeniseNTapscott

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Denise. When did you first become interested in Voodoo? What about Voodoo makes you want to include it as a recurring theme in your fiction? What kind of research did you do for your novel, Gypsy Kisses and Voodoo Wishes?

DNT: Great questions! Voodoo first caught my attention when I watched the movie Angel Heart. It was awesome and freaked me out! Then a few years later I saw The Skeleton Key and all kinds of story ideas popped in my head. I eventually came up with an idea that it would be neat to read about Voodoo battling Romany magic. I traveled to New Orleans several times to research Voodoo and Marie LaVeau. The more information I came across I realized my perception of Voodoo was way wrong. I was mixing and matching Voodoo with Hoodoo. There’s a lot more to both of these African Traditional religions than dancing to drums and poking dolls. I came across an awesome Rootworker, The Broken Prophet in Atlanta who explained there are several kinds of Voodoo from Africa and Haiti, and New Orleans being the melting pot it is, also has it’s own Voodoo! Hoodoo is a whole different ball game as well. I hope Gypsy Kisses and Voodoo Wishes (as well as my future stories) honors some of the things I learned and show that it’s not the evil religion people think it might be.

GMM: My debut novel, Invisible Chains, is an historical horror novel set in Antebellum New Orleans, told form the POV of a young female slave. What drew you to set your novel and other stories in New Orleans? How does the setting shape the narrative of your novel and other stories? Do you treat the city like a backdrop, or like a character in the story itself?

DNT: There are cities that have a certain flavor, but something about New Orleans feels magical. Considering Louisiana’s dark and lively history, I think it’s the perfect setting for my novels and short stories. One of my main characters, Grandmother Zenobia, is also dark and lively so it’s the perfect place for her to exist. I created a fictional area in New Orleans and named it Carrefour Parish (Carrefour means crossroads in French). I treat it like a living backdrop, similar to the zombies in the earlier episodes of the tv show The Walking Dead. In some episodes, you know the zombies are there, but the characters have other life problems to deal with. I hope the reader is aware of how it feels to be in the south, with hints of magic and how the characters move around in its environment without overshadowing what they go through.

GMM: I grew up in Central Pennsylvania and spent sixteen years of my life living in Pittsburgh. I consider Pittsburgh more of a home than the town I grew up in, but like you, New Orleans is in my soul. Each time I visit, I see something new, learn something about its history, and always have a good time. Tell me your best New Orleans story, or your fondest memory of the Crescent City.

DNT: I love New Orleans so much that people think I’m from there! My favorite memory is visiting a small bar on Bourbon Street for my birthday a few years ago. I went to New Orleans by myself and wanted to listen to some live Jazz. Walking past a place called Maison Bourbon, I noticed they had a small band playing so I found a seat at the bar. The band leader asked if anyone was celebrating something special like an anniversary, wedding, or birthday. No one spoke up, which is odd because there’s always someone celebrating something in New Orleans. So I sheepishly raised my hand and said I was celebrating my birthday. They asked my name and I said Sunny, which is one of my favorite nicknames. The entire bar sang Happy Birthday to me and then played “When the Saints Go Marching In”. It was such a treat. The next night some of my girlfriends flew in and I told them my birthday story. We went back to Maison Bourbon and when I walked through the door, the band recognized me. They said, “Hey, Sunny’s back!” They played “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” and “When the Saints Go Marching In” for me. I will always cherish that moment, the feeling that I belong there and in New Orleans.

Thanks for letting me spend time on Girl Meets Monster.

Excerpt from “Price of Salvation”

I dragged myself through the open doorway and when I entered the humidity vanished.  Cool air caressed my face. I stood up straight and sighed.  When was the last time I took an honest deep breath, without coughing or puking? The aroma of freshly baked cinnamon rolls filled the air. My escape from the southern heat was glorious.

“Settle down,” I heard from the darkness.

“Close the door, and have a seat, Mrs. Jurel.”  

The voice of the Voodoo woman was clear and melodic, only slightly tainted with a New Orleans drawl.  

After blinking a few times, I saw a small metal folding chair. My eyes still hadn’t adjusted to the darkness so I fumbled around until I could sit obediently.  The chair was more comfortable than I expected.  Resting in the darkness was wonderful.  Once I regained my focus, I noticed I sat at a small table covered in soft black velvet. I wanted to brush my fingers across it, but my hands were dirty, accented with ragged nails, so I opted to fold my hands in my lap.

Sitting on a large purple and gold throne across from me was a pleasant-looking-dark skinned woman.  Her hair was covered with a purple turban, matching the royal purple on her front door.  She wore a black gauze tunic blouse.  Around her neck, a shiny copper Ankh glowed against her skin.  She didn’t wear any other jewelry, except a large black and gold fleur-de-lis ring that adorned well-manicured fingers.  Was she wearing a skirt or pants?  Why did I care about her outfit?  She was not the toothless, gray-haired woman I expected.  She looked like she was in her 40s?  My assistant Tasha joked “Black don’t crack”.  I could never say that, but she’s right.  This woman didn’t look old enough to be a grandmother.  She reminded me of that lady with the popular television talk show.  Everyone in her studio audience went home with expensive vacations and new cars.  

Three fresh, tapered candles, one black, one blue and one white, formed a triangle on the table on my right.  A thicker, taller, purple candle sat close to the Voodoo Woman. From my research, I knew the black one warded off negative energies and promoted healing. Royal blue was for seeking wisdom and truth. White was for protection, and purification.  Lastly, the purple one was for spiritual protection.  All the candles on this table represented protection but the purple one supposedly canceled negative effects of bad karma.  The Voodoo woman made interesting choices.

I lifted my head to take in my surroundings.  My neck was sore from my head being tossed back and forth every time I vomited.  There were shelves of books, crosses, various kinds of statues and other religious-looking artifacts.  If I was not mistaken, there was a shrunken head in the corner.  To my left, there was a jade dragon perched on a shiny black surface. Was that a human skull staring down at me?  Heavy red velvet curtains with gold trim covered windows, presumably protecting us from the sun.  In another corner there were large, dusty trunks. Simply being in this spooky room was worth my $500 dollars.

“Mrs. Jurel, you look like you could use some water.”

Grandmother Zenobia handed me a chilled, plastic bottle of water.  I was scared to drink it; when I vomited all over the luxurious black velvet table, I would be mortified.

“Go on, drink.”  

I swirled the cool water in my mouth a few times before swallowing. I braced for the burn.  Instead the liquid was sweet and went down smoothly.  It was an ordinary bottle of water, but it felt like I drank tears from heaven.  I paused, waiting for my stomach to betray me. It rumbled for a moment but then, silence.  Carelessly, I chugged the water as fast as I could.  Panicked, I look around for a trash can, for when my body-double crossed me and the water forced its way back out.  

There was no trash can.  There was no vomit.  There was peace, while sitting in a cool room.  I was so grateful that I cried.

“Do you need a moment to collect yourself?”  She asked, while passing me a soft tissue.  Wiping my tears away, I noticed my eyes didn’t sting when I blinked.  I cried even more.  It would take centuries to stop sobbing and catch my breath.

Attempting to compose myself, I noticed that I sat taller. My fever faded away.

“Thank you, Zenobia.”  

“Feeling better?” she asked.

“Yes,” I can’t believe that I do feel better.  Thank you for seeing me.”

“I prefer to be called Grandmother Zenobia.”

The black candle, the one for healing, flared brighter than the others.  The voodoo woman mumbled to herself; the flame obeyed her muttered commands and returned to its regular state. I re-adjusted in my seat and for the first time in months, I was almost my old self.  I took in another deep breath and appreciated the smell of cinnamon again. Aware I was on the clock, I got down to business.

Do you have a fiction fragment? How about your friends? Would you like to recommend someone to me aside from yourself? Drop me a line at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Guidelines: Submit 500-1000 words of fiction, up to 5 poems, a short bio, and a recent author photo to the e-mail above.

Fiction Fragments: Jade Woodridge

Last week I chatted with Curtis M. Lawson about his new short story collection, Devil’s Night.

This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes fellow Seton Hill University alum, Jade Woodridge.

Jade T. Woodridge is a Washington D.C./Maryland native, currently living in Southwest Michigan. While her short fiction dabbles in various genres and styles, Science Fiction and Fantasy seems to be at the forefront. Her works can be described as emotionally driven, with the question of spirituality beneath its layers.

Jade has a BA in English Literature from Seton Hill University (2016) and a MA in Library and Information Sciences from the University of Maryland (2020). Her works have been featured in the Chiron Review, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, WitchWork, and The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. [Untitled] is her first novel.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Jade. Tell me about the fragment you submitted. Something sinister seems to be happening, but maybe it’s just the imagination of little girls. Without giving away too many spoilers, can you tell us what’s happening to Marie and Louise?

JW: Marie and Louise are two little southern girls at the wrong place at the wrong time. Children are so innocent but very perceptive and I’ve always wondered about their response to tragedies like suicide. The girls don’t really know what’s going on, but they know that, whatever they are seeing, it feels wrong and scary. The comparison of Marie’s hair to a rope is the only thing little Louise — a black child living in the past — could think of to associate with death.

GMM: We share a table of contents in the recently released Midnight & Indigo anthology featuring 22 specualtive fiction stories by Black women. I just read your story, “Millenium,” and wondered if, like “The Sweeper Man,” if more of your stories feature children in really dark situations. Do you have a preference for writing younger characters, or is this simply a coincidence?

JW: Haha! Quite a bit of my shorts feature children. I have a piece of flash fiction in The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature titled “Pigeons” about a little girl learning about acceptance and differences while feeding pigeons with her grandmother. It’s a fluffy piece compared to “Millenium” and “The Sweeper Man”. A longer work in progress of mine also features a little girl and, like Marie and Louise, she does go through a few things in her childhood that no child should have to go through. I was not very emotional as a child; though I was never put in situations like Marie, Louise, or my other young characters, it’s cathartic to write from the perspective and emotions of innocence. I’ve noticed that it is only in my short fiction that I have child characters, and perhaps that is the coincidence.

GMM: I’m writing these questions on election night, which is only three days from when this post goes live. I usually don’t wait to the last minute to get questions out to my guests, but I’ve really been struggling to stay focused with everything happening in the world. Are you having a similar experience? How have current events affected either your ability to write, or what you choose to write about?

JW: Current events haven’t affected the content of my writing. Writing has always been an escape for me. Sometimes I feel I need an escape at more times than others, though, and this has been one of those times! I told a writing friend recently that sometimes I just need to retreat into the worlds that I created where I am in control of what goes on. I can’t live in my own little world forever, though, and therein lies the problem.

Excerpt from “The Sweeper Man”

It was a hot day and Marie and Louise ran barefooted by the little lake looking for frogs and those slippery newts. Their toes dug into the cool dark muck and wiggled like worms. Marie’s toes stuck out like a sore thumb; the nails and little white toes wiggled like the long pale bellies of trout. Louise could barely distinguish her toes from under the mud they blended in so well.

“Your toes look like a trout when they go belly up.” Louise giggled.

Marie crouched down and frog-hopped her way to the grass, her long silky plat swinging. “Well your feet look like them bullheads wriggling in muddy water,” she said with each hop.

Louise giggled and frog-hopped after her. Her hair would never swing the way Marie’s did and Louise frowned some. Her long plat was like a tail. Seeing Marie crouched down in the grass with her long plat made Louise think of a wild cat. She wanted to be a cat too, just like Marie, so she crouched down real low in the grass too, crawling up to where Marie lay beneath the bushes, mesmerized by something. Her little feet sticking out plain as day made the perfect target, but Marie wasn’t playing anymore. “I got you frowg!” never escaped Louise’s smiling lips as she saw where Marie was looking: a girl was crying on the other side of the lake. She was a little older than Marie and Louise. They could tell by the way her breast buds jutted out from her stained shirt and the way her hips curved just a little as she waded through the water. She looked sick, Louise thought. Her eyes were red-rimmed and dark spots blotted her face, the type of spots you got when you get hit with the smooth lake stones when the school boys got to sneaking after you and tease you when no one was looking.

“Lou, she can’t go no farther, can she? Daddy said the lake’s too deep to go out too far.” Marie’s voice quivered just a little with uncertainty. Louise got this cold feeling all over her body as the girl went farther and farther out in the water until it was up to her shoulders. She had a far gone look in her eyes like she wasn’t seeing, and her white face seemed almost gray. She wasn’t in there, the girl with the water up to her neck now. She looked dead.

“No!” Marie screeched, jumping to her little feet. She darted across the grass to the muddy bank, “You come back here! Come back!” she cried, but it was too late: the water was up to her chin, then ears, as if she were using her last bit of strength to balance on the very tip of her big toe.

“Do something, Lou!” Marie screamed back to the bank under the bushes to where Louise lay frozen with dread. She knew what was going to happen. She had heard her grandmamma drown some pups before. She’d seen the life bubble from their lips with her own wet eyes. The girl was too far away, and Louise was too little; she didn’t have the powerful arms her daddy had to swim out and fetch her and back again.

Time seemed to go in slow motion just then. The girl in the water sputtered and coughed as if she had sudden begun seeing the error she had committed and her arms began to flail. She slipped. She went under. She bobbed up, lungs too clogged with water to scream. She went under. She bobbed up, closer to the center of the lake, arms flailing. She went under.

Silence.

Marie just stood there on the bank breathing hard. Her shoulders rose and fell with each breath and her little body shook. She didn’t quite understand what had happened. She was half expecting the girl in the lake to bob back up smiling and swim back to the bank, “I fooled ya real good, didn’t I?” she would say.

But nothing happened.

“I don’t wanna play anymore,” Marie’s voice went high at the end as if she were to start crying. She turned and walked away. Louise jumped up and followed after her, shaking uncontrollably. What just happened?

Marie’s plat swung with each hurried step she took and Louise watched it as it swung. It didn’t look like a tail anymore. It looked like a rope, a rope slowly tightening itself around her pale neck.

Do you have a fiction fragment? How about your friends? Would you like to recommend someone to me aside from yourself? Drop me a line at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Guidelines: Submit 500-1000 words of fiction, up to 5 poems, a short bio, and a recent author photo to the e-mail above.

Fiction Fragments: Jessica Guess

Last week, I spoke with Mexican American expat V. Castro about her erotic vampire fiction and I’m still thinking about that scene in the Irish pub, wondering what filthy delights await her vampire protagonist.

This week, I’m excited to welcome Jessica Guess to Girl Meets Monster. I recently picked up a copy of Jessica’s horror novella, Cirque Berserk (2020) and couldn’t put it down.

Jessica Guess is a writer and English teacher who hails from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. She earned her Creative Writing MFA from Minnesota State University, Mankato in 2018 and is the founder of the website Black Girl’s Guide to Horror where she examines horror movies in terms of quality and intersectionality.

Her creative work has been featured in Luna Station Quarterly and Mused BellaOnline Literary Review. Her debut novella, Cirque Berserk, is available for purchase on Amazon. You can get weekly content from Jessica by joining her Patreon at www.patreon.com/JessicaGuess

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Jessica. I loved Cirque Berserk, because it captured so many of the things I loved about watching slasher movies while I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s. The major difference being that one of your main characters is a young Black girl, and her love interest is Latino…or possibly Native American. Most of the slasher movies I watched didn’t have Black people in them. The ones that did have Black characters usually killed them off right away, to the point that this is now considered a trope in horror films. How did this absence of Black characters affect you as a viewer and reader?

JG: I think that being a huge fan of horror while being constantly reminded of how much the genre disregards Black people created a resentment in me. Don’t get me wrong, I really do love horror. I love the mythologies, and the blood, and the monsters, but for a very long time it has felt like we’re a punchline in the genre. I think it’s like that for anyone who isn’t a white, cis-gendered, heterosexual person in horror. That makes me want to kind of right that wrong in my own writing. I want to see all the things I didn’t see growing up.

NOTE: Jessica told me Rocehelle’s love interest is Native American, but asked me not to reveal his name to avoid spoilers. So, go pick up a copy of Cirque Berserk and find out for yourself.

GMM: I recently watched American Horror Story: 1984, and during each episode I was calling out the names of the movies or characters they were referencing based on the way someone was murdered. What are some of the horror movies or scenes from movies that inspired your work? Are there murders in your book that mimic the tropes of slasher movies?

JG: Definitely Urban Legend. I think that movie has some of my favorite slasher kills ever. I wanted the kills in Cirque Berserk to be as memorable as those and have a type of irony that they did in Urban Legend. An example of that is the opening of when the girl in Urban Legend is driving with an ax murderer in her back seat and “Turn Around Bright Eyes” starts playing. That’s definitely an inspiration for a scene in Cirque Berserk. That scene in particular also takes some inspiration from The Strangers: Prey at Night. I just like the idea of upbeat music playing when something horrific is happening.

GMM: AHS: 1984 uses music not only to trigger nostalgia, but to put us in the setting and create a sense of atmosphere to remind us which time period we’re witnessing on screen. How did you use music in your novella to create nostalgia for the characters and your readers? What other details did you use to give us a sense of the time and setting? Did you rely on any specific horror tropes, or did you try to create something new?

JG: So, the song titles set up the sections of the novella, but they also give a hint to what the theme of that section is. For instance, in the “Rhythm of the Night” section, we finally figure out exactly what is happening, which is to say we’re figuring out the rhythm of this night. It helped me to frame the story while also relying on the nostalgia and atmosphere those songs create. As for tropes, I hoped to take some old tropes and re-invent them. I think that’s what we’re supposed to do as writers, take tropes that could be stale or overused, and find a way to make them new and fresh. I like to think I did that with Rochelle and Brian. I wanted the reader to start out thinking they knew exactly where the story was going and then realize they didn’t know at all.

Karlie, Karlie, Where Did You Go? (Excerpt)

Lisa

I watched Erica’s blue impala through my rearview mirror. I was parked with the back of my car to the back of her car. Why had she pulled in to an orange orchard? Did she spot me? Why wasn’t she getting out of her car? A cold sweat formed on my forehead. What if she told Aaron?

Just then, Erica got out of her car and walked up to the storefront that was shaped like a cottage. Maybe she wanted to pick oranges. Or maybe she was calling Aaron to warn him. My palms were suddenly slipping off the steering wheel from sweat. Should I follow her or just go home? I gripped the keys ready to start the ignition but stopped. I had to find out what happened to my cousin.

“Hello darlin’,” an old gray-haired white woman said from the cash register. “Care to try some orange and peach jam? I make it here myself.”

“No, thank you. I’m uh, just looking around,” I said.

“If you want to pick from our grove, you just come on up here and grab a basket and go on out back. You can take a guide with you. Sometimes people get lost back there you know.”

I smiled at her. “Did a girl just come in here? One with deep brown skin and frizzy brown hair and a red hoody? We’re supposed to meet up.”

The woman nodded. “Said she was pickin’ some orange for her mom.”

“I guess I’ll take a basket.”

“That’ll be a dollar fifty for the basket.”

I gave the woman the money and she offered me a wide wicker basket and pointed me towards the back of the cottage where the wide grove started.

Was Erica really doing something kind for her parent? Did I follow her for nothing? Maybe this was a distraction so that Aaron could hide evidence while I was off chasing Erica. Damn it! Did I fall for some trick?

I walked down a row of oranges and looked for a glimpse of Erica’s hoody. The sun was beating down hard but there was a breeze so the sweat forming on my forehead wasn’t as much as it had been for the past few days. The citrusy smell of oranges invaded my nostrils as I turned and looked for any glimpse of Erica. 

I moved further and further into the grove trying to keep the entrance in sight.

Sometimes people get lost back there, you know.

I moved passed orange tree after orange tree but still, there was so sign of Erica.

“Erica?” I called finally. It was a long shot but maybe she’d answer. “Erica, I just wanted to talk to you for a second. My name is Lisa Yen, I’m Karlie Yen’s cousin. The girl who died? I saw you with Aaron earlier. I just need to ask you some questions.”

Just then I saw a flash of the red to the right of me. I turned. Nothing there. Instead just more orange trees. I moved to where I saw the flash.

 “Erica?” I called, running further into the grove.

 A feeling of dreadful realization rose inside of me. No one knew where I was. I didn’t tell Travis where I was going. That woman in the cottage thought I was here with a friend. This grove went on for acres. I looked back to try to see the entrance but all I saw was more orange trees.

“Shit,” I whispered. I tried retracing my steps to find a way out. My heart was beating loud and fast in my chest and sweat poured down my neck.

 My bra was noticeably wet now and uncomfortable. I had only been in the grove for a few minutes, but I was lost and drenched and starting to get scared. I tried to take a deep breath but couldn’t.

 “Fuck,” I whispered as I frantically checked my pockets for my inhaler.

I must have left it in the car. I forgot how bad my asthma got in Everpeirce. Orlando was a little better even though the air was dryer there. The problem with Everpierce was that there were more swamplands, dust mites, and pollen from all the different citrus orchards in the air here. And here I was in the middle of a field of oranges, with no inhaler. Smart girl.

“Shit,” I whispered trying not to panic. I stopped walking and managed to slow my breathing a bit though knew I still needed my medicine. I walked in the direction that I thought I came from, but nothing. No entrance, just oranges.

Just then there was another flash of red just to the left of me.

“Erica? I just want to talk!”

“Is that why you were following me?”

I turned around and there she was. Her hoody was pulled over her head and her sleeves pulled all the way down to her wrists despite the overwhelming heat.

“Erica?” I said stupidly. I was out of breath again now. The heat, orange blossom pollen, and fear not doing my asthma any favors. Erica on the other hand looked fine, cool, and not scared in the least.

“Why are you following me?” She stared at me, her hands in her hoody pocket.

“I-I just wanted to ask you some questions,” I said, hands on my knees.  “Hey—do you—know the way—out?” I said between gasps. “I’m—lost”.

Erica stared at me silently, not moving. Her face was expressionless and unreadable, but it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand at attention. Her dark brown eyes moved around, seeming to look if anyone else was in the orchard with us.

“It’s r-really hot out here,” I said gasping a little. She turned back to face me but remained silent. “Aren’t you hot?”

Her eyes narrowed in on me, her face still unreadable.

“E-Erica,” I said, starting to get dizzy. “Can’t breathe—please—help.”

Do you have a fiction fragment? How about your friends? Would you like to recommend someone to me aside from yourself? Drop me a line at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Guidelines: Submit 500-1000 words of fiction, up to 5 poems, a short bio, and a recent author photo to the e-mail above.

Fiction Fragments: Linda D. Addison

If you didn’t catch last week’s Fiction Fragments, you missed my chat with Stoker Award nominated writer, Cindy O’Quinn.

This week, I am absolutely thrilled to welcome Linda D. Addison to Girl Meets Monster. Linda is a living legend, and if you don’t know who she is, or aren’t familiar with her work, you definitely need to get out more.

Linda D. Addison, the author of five award-winning collections, including The Place of Broken Things written with Alessandro Manzetti& How To Recognize A Demon Has Become Your Friend and recipient of the HWA Lifetime Achievement Award.

Site: www.lindaaddisonpoet.com
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/linda.d.addison
Twitter: https://twitter.com/nytebird45
Instagram: nytebird45

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Linda. Way back in 2018, before the world began to resemble a dystopian science fiction novel, I had the unexpected privilege of sitting at your table during the awards ceremony at StokerCon in Providence, Rhode Island. I say unexpected because I got separated from my friends and we had to find seats at different tables. I like to believe that everything happens for a reason. That night I got to hear your acceptance speech for your Lifetime Achievement Award, and it had a profound effect on me. I had pitched my novel, Invisible Chains, earlier that day, and felt good about the possibilities that were ahead of me. But after listening to your story of strength, dedication and success, I believed in myself a bit more.

You are and have been an inspiration to many writers, including myself. Who inspires you? Which writers, musicians, artists, or experiences shaped your view of the world and gave voice to your writing?

LDA: I totally believe everything happens for a reason. How delightful that we met as your wonderful novel was finding its way into the world. Thank you for sharing how you were inspired by me. There were so many who inspired me, the first that always comes to mind is my mother, who was a master storyteller, giving my imagination permission to grow. I never lost that connection, no matter how hard life is, I’ve learned to return, again and again, to my imagination, to creating…

Let me first say how inspired I am by reading the work of new authors, like yourself, that is the secret gift I get from mentoring. Every year I discover new writers, whose work excites me and makes me want to write. The list of writers, musicians, artists, and experiences that shaped me would fill a book. I was a very quiet child and watched everyone around me, internally trying to understand others’ behavior. I’ve studied philosophy, psychology, religion, science, everything to figure the world out, still studying, only not so shy anymore.

Many of my family members support and celebrate my writing growing up and now. I have core friends who hold me up when life wears me down. My writers’ group (since 1990) continue to make my writing better and are my good friends also.

Per influences: In elementary school I read all the fairy tales and fantasies I could. Junior high, high school and college I read a lot of genre and non-genre work; to name a few: Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Edgar Allan Poe, Baldwin, Kafka, Shakespeare, Langston Hughes, John Cheever, and Toni Morrison. Once I got out of college, I obsessed over authors like Alice Walker, Terry Bisson, Nancy Kress, Octavia Butler, Maya Angelou and others.

There’s a long list of established creative people who I admired that have become friends over the years and early supporters of my writing career (some who are no longer with us): Jack Ketchum (AKA Dallas Mayr), David Morrell, Stanley Wiater, Tananarive Due, Charles Grant, Jill Bauman, Rick Hautala, Ellen Datlow, Charlee Jacob, Tom Monteleone, Doug Clegg, Tom Piccirilli, Weston Ochse, Yvonne Navarro, Marge Simon, Elizabeth Massie, Michael Collings. I could go on. Some people, who I only talked to a few times but whose words of support are diamonds I carry forever inside: Octavia Butler, Ramsey Campbell, Toni Morrison, Joe Lansdale, etc. I love all kinds of music, but when I write I like music that is all instrumental: anything by Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett; Arizona musicians I’ve discovered since 2014 are Stu Jenks, Barry Smith and Beau Gerard.

GMM: Now that you’ve won a Lifetime Achievement Award, what’s next? What projects have you been working on? What dream projects have you been putting off? What creative work have you been doing aside from writing fiction and poetry? How are you channeling your experience and expertise into educating and mentoring other writers?

LDA: The first new thing is I’ve finished my first novel, science-fiction. Writing a novel was a whole new land to play in, since I’ve made my career with poetry and short fiction. It’s been something I’ve avoided for years because I was afraid I’d get lost in the novel and not find my way out. The fear started to dissipate at WHC2012 when Rick Hautala and Joe Lansdale both came up to me and wanted to know why I hadn’t written any novels. I told them I was afraid and they reminded me that I know how to write a story and should do novels as one chapter/story at a time. Somehow, that worked on me over time. Once it comes out, we’ll see what the world thinks.

Another dream come true: I attended (virtually) the release of a film (inspired by my poem of same name) “Mourning Meal” by award-winning producer/director Jamal Hodge and it was so beyond exciting. Jamal (and team) did an amazing job of creating a high-quality movie and story. I’m so proud to have this as my first visual project to be part of because I grew up watching scary movies with my mom and always dreamed of seeing my work as part of a film.

A dream project I’d like to do is design a Life Poems Meditation card deck, using some of the Life Poems I’ve posted.

There’s not a lot of time outside of writing, editing and mentoring to do other things but I do meditate and do tai chi each day. Occasionally, I like to create collages, and dream about doing collages with poetry involved. I also like playing the American Indian flute and sketching both are hobby level.

I enjoy sharing my experience with others. It’s completing a cycle of what is given to me, to pass on to others. Not to mention how much I learn in the process. There’s three ways I do this: (1) I teach workshops at conferences; (2) I am an official part of the HWA Mentor Program; (3) I take opportunities that cross my path, in person or on social media, to share suggestions with other writers, to connect people, and to celebrate others successes.

GMM: In the documentary, Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019), based on Robin R. Means Coleman’s book, Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present (2011), Tananarive Due says, in reference to the representation of blacks in films like D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), “Black history is black horror.” How has your identity as a woman of color living in the United States shaped your writing? Why were you drawn to the dark speculative and horror genres? Why do you think these genres are a good match for the stories marginalized people need to tell?

LDA: My imagination was always in the world of unreality. The first stories were told to me by my mother and there were magical creatures involved. I was drawn to genre books, movies, television shows growing up as a way of escapism from a life that was sometimes unsafe. Even though there were few Black images, I connected internally to the stories as a way to feel afraid, in the safety of movies. It’s clear to me my whole life, that being Black in America is riddled with real life horror. The monsters are human and the world on many levels, is waiting to make me feel less human, my life less valuable than others. As a girl, I learned the streets weren’t safe for me, whether in a Black neighborhood or outside my area.

The stories of marginalized people need to be told. Our voices need to be heard for so many reasons. Pain/anger is more than physical, it’s emotional, psychological, and passed generation to generation, wearing on the spirit. A society that suppresses part of its population loses part of itself. Like it or not, we are all in this together. We can’t heal the suppression that others create, but we can reflect our feelings in our stories, in any way we decide, with the possibility of some self-healing.

Fragment from The Nature of the Beast by Linda D. Addison

Sentinel Feu crouched in the cave’s entrance, scanning the outside area at 80% interface, as Bos-garth wiped the blood from his hands with the shaman’s robe. Other than indigenous animal life there was no humanoid life form nearby.

Bos-garth’s main ship, the Barstorm, waited in the outer orbit of Tah-Jaka. There wasn’t enough time for a cleanup crew. Feu would have to handle this herself. Although the Organization did business on Tah-Jaka there was little interaction with the native religious groups. A lone shaman this far from settlement wouldn’t be missed.

“To come this far for nothing.” Bos-garth kicked the dead Jakan’s small body. “For no answers.” He stomped the shaman’s fetishes into the stone floor.

Feu listened to Bos-garth’s heartbeat, waiting for it to slow, before saying anything. Not afraid, but too familiar with his needs, the rhythm of his drives. “We should go now.”

“Yes, you’re right.” He almost had to crawl to get out the small cave entrance.

She removed a pinch of grey clay from her waist bag and placed it on the center of the dirt floor.

Once they were back in the transport, Feu snapped her fingers sending an activation signal to the explosive. There was a muted rumble as the cave filled with a flash fire and collapsed inward.

She sat in the driver’s seat next to Bos-garth.

“I know you don’t approve of this quest of mine,” Bos-garth said.

“It’s not my place to approve or disapprove, but between this and the Ema project the Organization is concerned about your focus.”

“Let me worry about the Organization. I’ve brought enough gain to them and you to be allowed my hobbies, don’t you think?”

“This is more than a hobby, Bos-garth,” she said, looking into the reflective sun shades he wore.

He removed the shades, took her right hand and squeezed her thumb, invoking the Sentinel Override. “I don’t want to talk about this again. You’re not the one who has been told they are on their last life. I will find a way to continue. Now let’s get back to the ship. I have a new employee to interview.”

She nodded slightly, acknowledging acceptance of his override. He released her hand and Feu drove them to the spaceport.

Raven stepped out of the public transport, in front of the spaceport main building, into ankle high ash of Akan, her birth planet. This was the last time she would walk on Akan in a biosuit. She was leaving and never coming back. e-Raven, her ema was wrapped around her neck, looking at quick glance like a lizard-like necklace. It tasted the emotional distress in her blood and created a precursor to Serotonin to calm her.

It took going through three sections of decontamination before Raven could unlock her helmet. Few at the spaceport would have known she had won the ema lottery and was actually picked at the Joining by the ema baby. That would have been big news on other planets but here. Only people with interstellar feeds would know her story.

She faced the slated windows of the lobby, taking a last look at Akan, one of the planets designated for trash, after its natural resources had been depleted. Constant grey snow fell from the sky. Not real snow like she’d seen in vids, but ash from trash flashed into the upper atmosphere by teleporters. The final use of found alien technology, once hoped to make instantaneous travel from planet to planet a reality. The only problem is that whatever was transported, arrived dissembled. So planets used them to move their trash off planet, to places like Akan.

Raven checked the departure monitor to find the gate for Bos-garth’s ship. Everyone knew he was one of the richest people in the known universe, and probably one of the most corrupt. When his agent approached her, after the Joining about a job, she asked one question, was it off planet? He smiled softly and said yes, that she could pick any planet to work on. The possibilities were endless. Or she could decide she didn’t want to work for Bos-garth, after their first meeting. In return, Raven would get transportation to any place she wanted and enough credits to live extravagantly for five years.

It took Raven no time to agree. The smiling agent waited at the gate for Raven and bowed deeply.

“Do you have any luggage?” he asked.

Raven shook her head, unlocking the biosuit. He helped her step out of it. “Do you want to keep this?

“No.”

The agent passed it to a young woman behind him. “We are ready to go when you are, Ms Raven.”

“Are there others coming on board?” she asked, stroking e-Raven.

“No, we were waiting just for you.” He pointed with an open hand to the loading ramp.

Feu met Raven/e-Raven in the reception room on Barstorm. She looked at the thin girl with a hint of fur around her neck, hidden behind the rainbow spun tunic shirt and loose pants. The material slowly changed color at the pace of passing clouds, created onboard by spiders genetically designed for Bos-garth. This girl and her pharmaceutical creature was not the answer to his impossible search.

Do you have a fiction fragment? How about your friends? Would you like to recommend someone to me aside from yourself? Drop me a line at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Guidelines: Submit 500-1000 words of fiction, up to 5 poems, a short bio, and a recent author photo to the e-mail above.

Fiction Fragments: L. Marie Wood

Last week, I chatted with P. D. Cacek about what it means to be a NECON legend, and she gave some sound advice on writing a sequel. If you missed it, check it out.

This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes award-winning horror writer L. Marie Wood. I’ve had very limited face-to-face interaction with her. I’m hoping to change that fact in the coming year, because I have so many more questions for her that go beyond the scope of Fiction Fragments.

L. Marie Wood is an award-winning author and screenwriter.  She is the recipient of the Golden Stake Award and the Harold L. Brown Award for her fiction and screenplays.  Her short story, “The Ever After” is part of the Bram Stoker Award Finalist anthology Sycorax’s Daughters.  Wood was recognized in The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, Vol. 15 and as one of the 100+ Black Women in Horror Fiction.

Her first two novels, Crescendo and The Promise Keeper are available as audiobooks, which is fun!  The Promise Keeper‘s re-release is also scheduled for 2020.  She’s a member and mentor of the HWA, an officer in Diverse Writers and Artists of Speculative Fiction, and the programming director for the horror track at MultiverseCon.

Website:  www.lmariewood.com
Twitter:  @LMarieWood1
Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/LMarieWood/

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster! Your involvement in the horror community goes way beyond writing fiction, and I wanted to highlight some of your different roles that support the work of other writers and help to educate people about the horror genre. Can you tell me about your roles within DWASF and MultiverseCon? How has the pandemic made your roles more difficult? What experiences have helped you in your role as an HWA writing mentor? What other ways are you supporting the work of horror writers?

LMW: I’m so excited to be a part of Girl Meets Monster! Thank you so much for letting me talk about some of things I am most passionate about. I am the Director of Curricula and Outreach at Diverse Writers and Artists of Speculative Fiction (DWASF), which allows me to pair my love of teaching with the genre I hold dear. I created the soon-to-be-launched horror fiction curriculum at DWASF and continue to find new and interesting ways to bring industry knowledge to diverse communities. Alongside horror, we will have science fiction and fantasy modules available in the future and we look forward to diving into the intricacies of world building and character development from unique genre perspectives. At MultiverseCon, I serve as the Director of Horror Track programming. This allows me to create panels that speak to real considerations in the genre – topics like writing strong female characters, accessibility, and LGBTQ+ representation in horror fiction hold court alongside how to build a better monster and horror antagonists in folklore. The conversations that come are invigorating, to say the least.

The pandemic has presented challenges, for sure. Not being able to gather in person has been difficult to navigate and will continue to impact things like conventions and signings. But we are all adjusting. MultiverseCon will be virtual this year and while that will be different than our inaugural event, different is kind of what we do. I look forward to the ways that MultiverseCon shows what it’s made of as we navigate this pivot.

Being an HWA mentor was a natural next step for me. I am an English Professor and, at one point in my career, I created a taught an introduction to horror writing course. We explored the classic antagonists, the role that tone plays in the genre, the nuances of the many sub-genres. It was wonderful – I was absolutely in my element. At the same time, I write a lot. Stories, novels, novelettes, novellas, flash fiction, micro fiction. I did a stint as a freelance journalist. Did a little ghost writing. I used to write poetry and I still write screenplays. I’ve been writing psychological horror since I was a kid and doing so professionally for the better part of 20 years. I live and breathe this thing – I’ve learned a lot along the way and I still learn something new about what I do every day. So, when the opportunity to help an author get their footing presented itself, I jumped in with both feet and have not looked back.

What other ways am I supporting the work of horror writers? In short, I read. And then I talk with people about what I’ve read and encourage them to try it out too. As an author, I understand that to be the ultimate goal – to have someone read my work and enjoy it, be touched by it. So, I too am dedicated to that cause so that other authors – their dreams – can be realized. Sometimes I step outside my genre, serving as a sensitivity reader or as a line and/or developmental editor. Occasionally I host workshops for young writers. For all writers who are serious about their craft, I am a tireless cheerleader, a high-fiver, and a virtual hugger.

GMM: Tell me about winning the Golden Stake Award. What story won? Can you give a synopsis of the story? What do you think set your story apart from the other nominees? How cool was it winning an award for vampire fiction while attending The International Vampire Film and Arts Festival in London? Have you written other vampire fiction?

LMW: Winning the Golden Stake Award was nothing short of amazing. My novel, The Promise Keeper, won the award in 2019 – the 100th anniversary of Polidori’s “The Vampyre”… the vampire tale that is credited with starting it all. It is the first vampire tale to be written in English; it was a product of the night of storytelling he shared with Mary Shelley and her husband, poet Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron where Mary Shelley famously wrote Frankenstein as he wrote this groundbreaking work – so this anniversary was an important moment in the genre. I remember thinking that I was just excited to be a part of it – me, with my unconventional vampire story about a young African girl who is swept into the world of the undead before she even understood who she was or the woman she could become – a female vampire who travels continents over centuries of time to outrun her destiny… to keep her promise. Over the course of the festival I met people who were familiar with vampire lore that I had never heard of before and exchanged ideas with people I am happy to call friends now. When my name was called, I almost missed it. I could not believe they were talking about me. The moment was so surreal.  Here’s the back-cover copy for The Promise Keeper:

A young girl, on the cusp of maturity, in what is now known as Benin, West Africa, is seduced by a beautiful stranger, a man the likes of which she has never seen before. Their encounter changes her forever. She runs, her travels taking her to Europe and the Caribbean over centuries to escape him.  She finally settles in New York City, convinced that she has eluded him, until she falls in love. 

When I did a reading the day before the awards ceremony, several people in the audience commented on the detail and description that I use in my writing and how it transplanted them from the space we shared together to the apartment where blood stained the bed. Perhaps the judges agreed – I don’t know… all I know is that the trophy is literally a golden stake replete with a blood-stained tip. So incredibly awesome.

Yes, I have written more vampire fiction. Apparently, this is the antagonist I go for when I want to write something outside of my sub-genre (who knew?). My short story, “The Dance”, about a chance encounter with a vampire at the club, will be part of Slay: Stories of the Vampire Noire from Mocha Memoirs Press later in 2020. I wrote a story years ago about a vampire who had to choose between love and need called “Baie Rouge”. And the second book in my series, The Realm, may or may not have a vampire lurking in the shadows. The first book in the series comes out this year from Cedar Grove Publishing (exciting!), so part two is a little way off…. I guess that means I may need to write another vampire short story in the meantime.

GMM: How do you find balance with all of your roles as a writer, mentor, con organizer, and all of your other responsibilities? Do you have any advice for other writers, especially women of color, who are trying to write and publish, while attending school, and/or working a full-time job, and/or caring for a family? Do you find yourself saying yes to every project that comes your way, or have you learned to say no? Asking for a friend.

LMW: To be honest, I don’t think about it. Let me say it differently. We all know people who drive miles and miles to get gas because it is cheaper across state lines – either we know that person or we are that person. As ridiculous as it might seem to that person and many others, I don’t think about the price of gas or go hunting for cheaper. I need gas to drive. I need to drive to get where I want to go. So, I just buy it. Along those same lines, I need to write. I don’t plot out time to do it, devise a schedule, set a word count, etc. I just do it or something related to it, like research or character development, because I have to. Just like I need to breathe to live. 

Writers write. 

When I had such debilitating writer’s block that I couldn’t string together a full sentence if it was even remotely frightening, I wrote gardening articles and community feel-goods until the block lifted (and boy did it take a loonnggg time – several years). Because I had to write something.   Recognizing my drive helps me understand other people’s needs. Someone needs a second eye on a piece they are excited about; panels need to be pinned down; edits are needed to help move someone’s story forward – it sounds like a lot but all of these tasks are in the same family and they are associated with the thing that I greatly respect in others and recognize in myself as well – the burn. It’s what makes us do what we do – it’s what makes us push. I’ll never get in the way of that.

1 a.m. is a great time to be productive. 

My advice to writers who are trying to get it all done is to do exactly that. On the surface that doesn’t sound helpful but let me explain. I did that very thing – I was working full time, writing, going to school, and had familial responsibilities all at the same time. And the burn that I mentioned before – the desire to be present in my home life, to earn well, to ace the class, to finish the story… to scratch the itch – I let it propel me every day. Sure, I got tired sometimes. Sure, it was hard. But there’s nothing like coming out on the other side accomplished. There’s nothing like showing the children in your life that they can succeed with hard work and dedication – that pushing themselves is absolutely worth it. They see. They understand. And they admire. So, keep at it. Try and fail – it will make you stronger. Try and succeed, then assess what worked so that you can keep that strategy in your toolkit. Share both the triumphs and failures with those closest to you not only to unburden (which is important), but also so they can see you picking yourself up and trying again. Maybe it will inspire them to help you dust off and go again. Maybe, just maybe, it will encourage them to go after something they want too. I do not say yes to everything because spreading yourself too thin is real. I would rather do well with a few things than have a finger in a lot of things that I ruin because I am not giving them the attention they deserve. This can be difficult because sometimes you end up turning something away that sounds interesting. But stress never helps anyone, so sometimes ‘no’ is the answer.  At 1 a.m. I am pretty productive. Not so at 4 a.m.

Fragment from The Realm

It didn’t happen the way they said it would.

No angels came to greet him; no bright light funneled a path through the darkness. No relatives called to him from the beyond.

He didn’t feel warmth, acceptance, or love – he felt emptiness.

He saw nothing in the moments before death. Just an impenetrable darkness that crowded his vision like oil spreading in water, encroaching on the faces of his son and daughter-in-law, blackening them: obliterating them. He could hear them after his eyes dimmed, standing open and blind like black holes. His tear ducts dried up as his son cried over him.

The sound of Doug’s grief, the guttural moans roiling and meshing with his pleas—his barters with God to save his father—was more than Patrick could take. Trying but failing to lift his hand from his side and stroke his son’s head, Patrick silently prayed that his hearing would dissipate as quickly as his sight had.

Patrick could only imagine what Doug and Chris were seeing as his body broke down in front of him. Images of eyes ruined by broken capillaries filled with blood, his slacked mouth allowing a discolored tongue to peek through tortured his mind. He struggled for every breath now, death’s grip holding fast and firm. The thought of the kids seeing him fight for air, his face a twisted mass of pain and effort, upset him more than he thought it would. Death was not pretty.

Doug moaned and Chris cried while Patrick’s eyes grew drier and his skin grew paler. He thought it would never end, the display, the sick, cruel game death was playing. That he should witness it, that he should have to hear the calmness his son usually displayed crumble and fall away, was torture if ever there was a definition of the word. The devil, then. It was his work after all, he supposed. He was on his way to Hell and this was but a taste of what was to come.

And then there was silence.

Utter silence.

The sound of his son’s anguish was gone, mercifully. The hum of the respirator, the clicking of the rosary beads the man in the next bed held, the squeak of rubber soles on the sanitized tile floor as the nurses and doctors hurried to his side – all sound had disappeared. He wondered what would be next to go. His memory? He quizzed himself just to see if it was already gone. What’s my name? Patrick Richardson. How old am I? 59. Was is more like it, he corrected himself. After all, he was dead. Dead. Gone. Finished.

Patrick stood in the pitch-black silence confused and unbelievably sad. He was dead. He would never see the baby that Chris was carrying, his first grandchild. He wouldn’t ever watch another boxing match with his son and friends over beer and pizza. He wouldn’t get the chance to watch the waves break on the shore from a beach chair in the Caribbean. He wouldn’t do anything anymore—not eat, drink, or fuck—ever again. Because he was dead.

And death was dark. Impenetrably so.

How did this happen? he asked aloud using a mouth he could no longer feel. He thought back to that morning, when he was taking out the garbage. He could remember walking to the back of his house and getting the garbage can. The damned cat had gotten into it again; the little stray he left food and water for had knocked the top of the can off, torn through the garbage bag, and gotten to the trash inside. The little monster made a hell of mess too, strewing soggy newspaper, chicken bones, and juice cartons all over the brick patio. Patrick remembered cursing out loud and casting his eyes around the backyard, looking for the cat. He remembered turning back to the bowl he’d left out the night before and finding it full of food. ‘That’s what you were supposed to eat, damn it!’ he’d said as he bent down to clean up the mess.

On his way back into the house to get another garbage bag, a piece of the dream he had the night before came back to him. It hung in front of his eyes like a transparency over real life, framing everything with the hazy film of familiarity, all soft edges and anticipation.

Déjà vu.

As usual after those dreams, the dark ones that made him wonder if he was there, really there, walking, talking, living within them, he wondered if he was the character whose face the audience never sees.

The memory was faint, as it always was the morning after, but he knew what happened next. This time the scene was identical to his dream. There was usually something askew, some crucial piece off center, but this time nothing was out of place. He knew he would turn away from the door instead of going inside to get the garbage bag. He knew he would squint from the sun when he did, and that he would place his hands above his eyes, shading them like a visor. He knew it just as well as he knew his name, for as easily as that knowledge came, it dragged heavy fear and worry in its wake.

He obliged. It wasn’t like he had a choice.

Do you have a fiction fragment? How about your friends? Would you like to recommend someone to me aside from yourself? Drop me a line at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Guidelines: Submit 500-1000 words of fiction, up to 5 poems, a short bio, and a recent author photo to the e-mail above.

Why I’m Not Making New Year’s Resolutions for 2020

jamie-street--d6kTMGXV6E-unsplashEach year as the holidays get into full swing, I begin thinking about what happened during the year — the good stuff, the bad stuff, the stuff I wished I had done differently. And usually, I begin to feel a bit melancholy about all the things I didn’t accomplish. I had a lot of ups and downs in 2019. But lots of good things happened, like having two short stories published in anthologies with Scary Dairy Press, and my debut novel, Invisible Chains, was released at Necon 39 by Haverhill House Publishing. People I admire and respect had some very nice things to say about my book and I couldn’t be happier. In my own heart and mind, I am now a real horror writer. I became a guest blogger for Speculative Chic where I get to write about one of my favorite subjects: vampires. I dipped my toes into unknown waters by writing a few articles for Medium. And, because of those tangible successes, I’m beginning to take myself more seriously as I embrace the idea of becoming a professional writer (even if I still can’t quit my day job).

I reconnected with old friends, made new friends, and deepened some of my relationships with my close female friends and family who continued to join me on this journey around the sun another year. And in the process of spending time with those people, I learned a lot about myself. I’m looking forward to spending more time with all of you and can’t wait to create new memories. We have many more adventures ahead of us in the coming year and beyond.

Looking ahead to 2020, I’ve decided not to come up with a list of resolutions like I normally do. Statistics show that 80 percent of people will fail to keep their resolutions. I’ve been seeing a trend on social media that encourages people to choose one word to represent the things they want to achieve in the coming year and to create positive change rather than set up a bunch of unattainable goals that set you up for failure.

What is my word for the year? CREATIVITY

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As a writer, this word has a lot of meaning to me in terms of what I’m creating. I have several writing projects I fully intend to finish in the coming year, and I want to take a deep dive into reconnecting with my creative energy. That means finding more time to read, reflect, and experiment with my writing. It also means pushing myself out of my comfort zone by submitting more work and taking more risks.

I want to apply this word to the way I approach my entire life — how I eat, how I move, how I worship, how I grow, and how I love.

I am officially divorcing myself from the toxic institution of diet culture. I have struggled with weight loss and self-esteem issues since I was 10 and I am done with feeling shame about my body. I am going to get creative about how I feed myself by trying new recipes with my son, cooking for friends, and learning to enjoy food rather than seeing it as something I am constantly judging and evaluating like myself.

I’m also going to get creative about how I move my body. Exercise is something I usually view as punishment for the “bad” food choices I make. No more. I am going to try some new forms of movement this year. Activities that feel more like play than work. And, I’m going to make more of an effort to get outside and enjoy Nature. It isn’t enough to just move more. I want to learn to love my body. Not because I finally conquer it and bend it to my will, but because I accept it as it is right now in this moment and treat it with the love, care and kindness I would show a loved one.

Over the past several months, I flipped the script and started listening to not only my own intuition, but also what black women and women of color — women who look like me — have to say about health, healing, mindfulness and spiritual practices. Women like Bre Mitchell whose podcast, Brown Girl Self-Care, examines how women of color can learn from each other to heal themselves and their communities while addressing how institutionalized racism further complicates gender-bias, single parenthood, sexuality, abusive relationships, ancestral trauma, poverty, depression/anxiety, access to healthcare, and other issues disenfranchised women around the world deal with on a daily basis while simply trying to survive. I’m going to allow myself to trust my own inner voice, the voices of women of color, and the voices of my ancestors I have been ignoring. In 2020, my goddess spirit guides for creativity will include Kali, Frida Khalo, and Yemaya. Strong feminine beings who embody raw creative power and the healing magic of transformation.

And finally, I’m going to apply this creative vibration to how I view romantic relationships. At 47, dating has become more of a chore than something I enjoy. Being single doesn’t have to be a negative experience. Instead, I’d like to look at this phase of my life as an opportunity to grow and learn more about myself without worrying about how others perceive me. I’m burned out on online dating and I don’t have lots of opportunities to meet new people face-to-face. As a single parent who works full-time and is pursuing a writing career, I don’t have a lot of free time. And, I’m not satisfied with the asynchronous dating model of texting and waiting for days to hear back from someone who I might not see for months. That isn’t dating. At least, it isn’t what I want. So, I’m going to date myself in 2020 and come up with some interesting ideas of places to take myself and create new ways to show myself some love. If I end up meeting someone who genuinely wants to take the time to get to know me, great. If not, I’m still going to enjoy myself on this next rotation around the sun.

What will your word be in 2020?

Fiction Fragments: Jeff Carroll

I’m almost embarrassed to admit that it’s been a year since my last Fiction Fragments post, which featured black female horror writer, R. J. Joseph. In the time that has past since the last post, a lot has happened. I published my debut novel. I published two short stories in horror anthologies (Terror Politico: A Screaming World in Chaos and The Monstrous Feminine: Dark Tales of Dangerous Women), and wrote a bunch of other blog posts for Girl Meets Monster, Speculative Chic, and Medium. I attended my first Necon and sold all the copies of Invisible Chains my publisher brought to the Merrimack Valley Halloween Book Festival, and was finally able to answer the question: Am I a Real Horror Writer? Spoiler alert: The answer is yes.

But, that’s enough about me. Today, I am thrilled to share a fragment by Jeff Carroll with you. I met Jeff Carroll a few years ago at StokerCon, but I didn’t have a chance to pick his brain and talk about his writing. So, I’m excited to have him as my first guest in this second season of Fiction Fragments.

Jeff C low res 2018Jeff Carroll is a writer and a filmmaker. He is pioneering what he calls Hip Hop horror, Sci-Fi and fantasy. His stories always have lots of action and a social edge. He has written and produced two films, Holla If I Kill You and Gold Digger Killer which won BEST Picture at the International Hip Hop film festival. His short stories have appeared in both The Black Science Fiction Society’s anthology and their magazine. He is also is the Hip Hop dating coach is a leading voice of Hip Hop reform and his book The Hip Hop Dating Guide is used by public schools and community groups nationwide. Jeff Carroll is also the author of the non-fiction book The Hip Hop Dating Guide. When he is not writing Sci-Fi stories he enjoys speaking on Healthy Dating to college and high school students everywhere and goes by Yo Jeff. He writes out of South Florida where he lives with his wife and youngest son.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Jeff. Tell me about Hip Hop horror, Sci-Fi and fantasy. How do you define these genres? What characterizes them as having a Hip Hop element? And, when did you begin developing these genres?

JC: I started calling my works Hip Hop horror in 2003 when I was promoting my movie Holla If I Kill You. The movie had some basic differences from many of the other films. It wasn’t just Black people in a horror film it was a different type of character behavior. Hip Hop Horror and sci-fi are stories that have the energy of hip hop subculture. They are multicultural, urban and young type of stories. Hip hop horror and sci-fi are based in hip hop culture and not the music only. However, I did write a hip hop story. Rasheeda the Zombie Killer is the closet story I have to a Hip Hop music influenced story.

GMM: Why speculative fiction? What draws you to these genres? What stories influenced your writing?

JC: I was drawn to speculative fiction because I am a big dreamer. I am also a futurist at heart. I love thinking about the future and solutions to the problems of the world. I loved “What if” stories like The Spook Who Sat by the Door and Planet of the Apes. Those stories influenced my Harlem Shake series. Stories like L. A. Banks’ (RIP) Vampire Huntress Legend series motivated my first horror book Thug Angel: Rebirth of a Gargoyle. I enjoyed the urban setting and the real world connection. I remember reading Street Lethal by Steven Barnes and was blow away about the freedom of sci-fi.  You could destroy the world and reshape it in any way you want. And finally, my favorite sci-fi book Zuro!: A Tale of Alien Avengers by the late William Simms showed me how revolutionary a Black imagination could be. My book Welcome to Boss Lady’s Planet was more like Star Wars and Serenity than Zuro!: A Tale of Alien Avengers because I thought I needed to lay off the Black story lines to get a publishing deal.

GMM: Do you have any new film projects in the works? Can you tell us about it?

JC: Yes, I have a movie coming out this winter called The Death Pledge. It tells the story of a group of pledgees that have to spend the night excavating an African burial ground. It features my first monster like Jason and Freddy.

Excerpt from The Programmable Man, by Jeff Carroll

Lonely Love

Sometime in the not too distant future a girl waited for a booty call. Stacey Maplewood a single independent woman who is the head pharmacist and the only female in charge of a drug store in the city. In her bedroom the smell of jasmine flavored incense filled her candle lit room as Stacey lay in her bed. Her arm dangled off the side of her bed holding a glass of wine. On a well-decorated table not far from her bed was another wine glass, which was empty and next to that was a bottle of 1978 Merlot. The décor was straight out of a Rick James song. On the same table was a plate of scallops wrapped with prosciutto crudo (raw ham) with small cubes of aged cheddar cheese and wheat crackers. Her bedroom was decorated in a dark red and white matching the wine. Inside the wall opposite from her bed a clock said 12:00 a.m. Dressed in a red silk nightgown with a matching red waist clenching garter belt skirt and red net-laced stockings, which came right above her knees Stacey looked like a French can-can dancer. Not wearing any panties on she let her hand slide between her spread open legs and lightly massage her vaginal hairs to the soft tunes of her classic love music mix with all of the import old school singers and groups. She mixed groups like Journey and Foreigner who song Feels like the first time is her favorite. She had singers like the two Barry’s Barry Manilow and Barry White and of course that British singer Maxwell whose album runs from beginning to end with no interruption. She drifts into a semiconscious slumber. She listens to the words of the love from all of the crooners.

“That’s right love me baby” she says under her breath. After being single for so long she had become a skilled pro at pleasing herself and in fact she had gotten so good at it she was scared she had ruined herself. Maxwell’s music had become her regular stimulant. “Damn they don’t write songs like this anymore” Her hand moves with melody and her back starts to arch. Her eyes close and her body temperature increases. As her natural body fluids start to mix with the jasmine incense, she lets out a soft sigh. Her sigh reminds her that no matter how good she is she can only make up half the feeling that a real bedroom partner can give. I can’t believe I have to do this to myself again and whoever said the hand is mightier than the sword never had a good sword she thought.

Stacey is a child of the early years of music, which she refers to as the second golden age 1980’s and 90s. She feels nothing has changed since then. Men are still dogs and it’s still hard for an independent woman. Even though the 80s was decades ago things haven’t changed. To her it was weird how man had solved so many problems with science but still doesn’t have a clue how to deal with man to woman relations. We could create a man for a cell of another man in something as small as a Petri dish but we can make one who knows how to treat a woman. Bullshit future. People in the 80s use to dream about the future flying cars and stuff but with no man who gives a fuck about a flying car. Stacey would rather go back to riding horses when a man only traveled around in his village. Shit of it weren’t for selfsex she would have surely slipped into a permanent depression. She was so close to marriage with her X two years ago. So, close she could taste it.

Damn she thought Martin was going to be the one who was a break from the norm. He was fine. She met him filling a prescription for Vicodin. He was recovering from knee surgery after a basketball accident. He even came to her spinning class with her. For the life of her she could not figure out why he wouldn’t call her when he was running late. She had been dating him for only two weeks and he had given her just about every excuse for coming late to their dates. He had such interesting conversations. He was her African prince. He talked about how his father had three wives and he never wanted to be like him. He had gained her trust. Maybe he was different than American men. She was still willing to give him a try. Waiting for him always made her mind wander. She would not let her head drift into fully out distrust because once she went there breaking up was the next thing to happen. So, she focused back on her handwork to take herself to a place where her thoughts could not penetrate.

“Excuse me ma’am” the voice made Stacey jump interrupting her magic. It was a mechanical voice. One Stacey had gotten used to but in this moment any voice would have startled her. She quickly moved and sat up so fast she spilled her wine. She looked at the clock and it was 1:00 a.m. She covered herself with her gown. A human like robot stood outside her bedroom door and continued “I have finished washing the dinner dishes and bagging the garbage”. Spike’s metallic finish was clean and sparkling like the day she bought him. “May I stand by the door until your date arrives?” he continued.

Damn these men she thought. Turning the music off she says, “Thank you Spike.” Taking a deep breath, she finishes “Sure stand by the door and let Martin in when he arrives.” She rolls over and takes a sip of her wine finishing it.

“As you wish ma’am” Spike says as he turns and walks down the stairs.

Spike was the treat she bought herself after she heard of her X boyfriends wedding. She ordered the male Z200 home protection model. She named him Spike after the bulldog on her favorite old school cartoon Tom and Jerry. Her personal robot made her feel secure guarding her house at night and charging itself during the day. The Z200 is very life like it looks just like a human. The come in male and female versions for the comfort of the owner. In a short time these robots have become a staple in almost every household. They provide both security and assistance replacing both domestic help and home security systems. Many people like Stacey have gotten so comfortable with their laser red eyes that they have allowed them to replace even pets.

Stacey grabs a small remote and pushes a button labeled Digi screen. The entire wall lights up and a woman standing in Times Square in front of a women next to a male robot.

“That’s right We’ve heard from hundreds of satisfied customers. So, why should you be unhappy and lonely. Let The Ultimate Companion fulfill your needs.”

That’s it I quit. Martin is just like every other man. I should have never given him my number. Why do I keep believing Jennifer when she says he’s nice? Stacey thought.

The picture on the wall changes to a man throwing a Frisbee in a park with a dog running to catch it in the air. Then the picture changes to an old man playing chess in the park with a robot man. “There are limits to what your dog give you.”

Paying no attention to the infomercial Stacey turns the channel to a lifetime movie and slowly falls asleep.

Next week, Girl Meets Monster chats with Lucy A. Snyder. Do you have a fiction fragment you’d like to share? Send it to me at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!