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.

scandal-recap
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: 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: Steven Van Patten

Last week on Girl Meets Monster, I chatted with Jessica Guess about her horror novella, Cirque Berserk (2020) and how she created a space for herself in a genre where she felt absent.

This week, I welcome award-winning horror writer, publisher, screenwriter, and TV stage manager Steven Van Patten.

Brooklyn native Steven Van Patten is the author of the critically acclaimed Brookwater’s Curse trilogy, about an 1860s Georgia plantation slave who becomes law enforcement within the vampire community. In contrast, the titular character in his Killer Genius series is a modern day hyper-intelligent black woman who uses high-end technology as a socially conscious serial killer.

SVP’s short fiction includes contributions to nearly a dozen horror anthologies, including the Stoker Award nominated New York State of Fright. A collection of short horror and dark fiction stories entitled Hell At The Way Station, published by his company Laughing Black Vampire Productions and co-authored by acclaimed storyteller, Marc Abbott hit shelves in 2018.

Along with a plethora of other honors and accolades, SVP won three African-African-American Literary Awards in 2019, two for Hell At The Way Station (Best Anthology and Best In Science Fiction) and one for Best Independent Publisher. He’s written about everything from sleep demons to the Harlem Hellfighters of WWI for episodes of the YouTube series’ Extra Credit and Extra Mythology. He’s also a contributor for Viral Vignettes, a charity-driven YouTube comedy series benefitting The Actor’s Fund. He uses his full name on Facebook but goes by @svpthinks on Twitter and Instagram. When he’s not creating macabre literature, he can be found stage managing television shows primarily in New York City and occasionally on the West Coast. Along with being a member of the New York Chapter of The Horror Writer’s Association, he’s also a member of The Director’s Guild of America and professional arts fraternity Gamma Xi Phi. His website is www.laughingblackvampire.com.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Steven. I am almost ashamed to say that I haven’t read the Brookwater’s Curse trilogy, but it is on my TBR list. I’m interested in reading the trilogy because I love vampires, and I wrote a slave narrative featuring a vampire. Your story is about a male slave who becomes an important part of vampire society, and my story is about a young woman who escapes slavery but still has a lot of obstacles to maneauver while gaining a better understanding of her identity in the context of the antebellum South while traveling with a vampire. My first question is why vampires? And my second question is why slavery? What about these two subjects/characters called to you to tell a story? How does being part of vampire society help or hinder your protagonist? What inspired this trilogy?

SVP: Well, first of all, thank you for having me. I’m thrilled to be talking to a mavin such as yourself. I think I was drawn to vampires because as a kid, I didn’t always see them all as monsters. I mean, I saw Christopher Lee’s Dracula as a monster, but William Marshall’s Blacula was a different case. There were some shades of grey. He tried to end the slave-trade. He was in love. He was misunderstood and in many ways his own worst enemy. And it’s that line from Scream, Blacula, Scream that stuck with me forever. It’s from the scene where he is cornered by two rather stereotypical 1970s pimps after disregarding their hooker. After listening to their nonsense, Blacula said, “You’ve made a slave of your sister and you’re still slaves imitating your slave masters!” Then he proceeds to kill them. But for me, a few things happen there. First, as a kid, I get to see this super dignified brother handle some street mess, but I also get a glimpse of how social ills can get addressed within the horror genre. So the only thing left in my head was, since Blacula, aka Prince Mamuwalde was of direct African descent, I began to wonder what an African-American would experience, feel and say if put in that situation. By the way, in Brookwater’s Curse, I don’t spend a great deal of time on the plantation. In fact, I let him get taken by the supernatural and get himself isolated very quickly. And I let him struggle with a sort of survivor’s guilt, while never losing his soul as a black man. This gets him in trouble more than once, because anytime he develops a relationship with black and brown humans, he ends up going against his marching orders, which are to hunt werewolves and protect the secret society of monsters in general.

GMM: I am intrigued by the concept of a “socially conscious serial killer”. I immediately thought of Dexter Morgan who channeled his drive to murder into a public service by eliminating threats to his community. How is your character different from Dexter?

SVP: Dexter comes up every once in awhile, but the truth is, my Killer Genius series was inspired by Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lector more than anything else. It occurred to me that if someone were to write a story about a black woman killing a bunch of people, it’s usually over some man being an asshole. Like an elongated episode of ‘Snapped’. I never saw a socially conscious black woman, so I invented Kendra, a black woman who is able to keep ahead of law enforcement by being super smart like a Dexter Morgan or a Hannibal Lector. One of the biggest differences between her and Dexter is that she’s actually more versatile. She can kill up close in a disguise, or she can hack into a military satellite and blast you from space. I’m particularly proud of how I came up with her kill for this one misogynist rapper while he’s performing on a 106 & Park derivative. The other big difference is of course, her agenda. Dexter was like a king snake of serial killers and he in a way, was feeding this horrible disfunction born from childhood trauma. While my Kendra certainly has her own childhood and adolescent demons, she’s more focused. I want to say she has a clearer vision and is more of a zealot, or a crusader literally attacking ignorant white and black people as a way of motivating change in society over all.

GMM: I’ve always written about dark subjects and over the years people, especially people with a strong religious background, have asked me “why horror?” As I’m sure you’re aware, there is often a misconception about horror writers being maladjusted people. Have you encountered similar questions about your writing? Have you been accused of being a “bad” person because of what you write? Has your connection to a larger community of horror writers helped you feel more confident about being a horror writer, or have you always felt at ease writing about monsters?

SVP: Here is where I may piss some people off, but since I get pissed off when confronted by the kinds of statements you mentioned, I’m going to just say it. Truth is, I have studied just enough history to see most organized religion as a construct meant to hold certain people in place. I’m not knocking the fellowship, being grateful to the universe, Kirk Franklin, Mahalia Jackson, none of that. But, when our black ancestors were brought here, I can’t say for certain what they all were worshipping, but I’m pretty sure it was not a blonde, blue-eyed Jesus. Unfortunately, a lot of folks can’t get past that, because whatever we had was beaten out of us while something else was beaten into us. Follow that up with Hollywood bastardizing and misrepresenting hoodoo, voodoo, Santeria and Yoruba cultures for white folks to kick up their heels and scream ‘eek’ and now they have us rejecting something we might actually need if we bothered to understand it. At least, those are my thoughts on the subject.

No one has ever come out and called me a bad person, but it’s been insinuated that something is wrong with me. And yes, I have been confronted by the naysayers and I’ve received the shade, particularly if I picked the wrong event to be a part of. But the people looking down their nose at me are often the same people wouldn’t know a decent horror movie if it bit them in the ass AND won’t tell Jermaine that no one cares about his mixed-tape. Because of that, I don’t exactly lose a lot of sleep over those people or their opinions. 

Being a part of the larger community, finding people like yourself is a morale boost. It lets me know I’m not alone in my horror nerdom or my pursuit to write about things that go bump in the night. And it’s funny you should bring it up because growing up around certain kinds of dudes, I only let a handful of friends know I was into this sort of thing. But I’m older now, and not as worried about rejection as I used to be. And yes, I will be comfortable with monsters until the day I die.

Excerpt from “The Patron Saint”

“You’re my motherfucking lawyer! You’re supposed to make this kind of shit go away! As much money as I made the label last year! Y’all got me hiding in this hotel room like some kind of fugitive! This is some bullshit!”

Sitting at the edge of the super king-sized hotel room bed wearing only a bathing suit, Kimberly stared absently at the TV on the wall in front of her. This bore a stark contrast to fully clothed Manuel’s animated pacing back and forth across the room as he screamed into his cellphone. She thought about turning the TV on so she wouldn’t have to listen, but figured in his agitated state that she would only get yelled at or worse.

“Seriously! What the fuck am I paying you for?”

She couldn’t hear the lawyer’s side of the conversation, but could tell that the lawyer was asking uncomfortable questions.

“What? No, she’s fine! She loves me and she loves Vegas. You sound like that punk ass cop that left a message a few minutes ago.”

Another pause.

“What? Her father? I don’t care about him. Fuck him! If he was a real nigga, he’d call me himself. Going to the damn cops like a little bitch!”

No matter what you hear or see, do not turn around. Do not face me, child!

Kimberly’s breath stopped as her mind struggled to process where a disembodied voice could possibly be coming from.

“Sam? Sam! I know this motherfucker didn’t just hang up on me…”

If he hadn’t been in such an angry state, Manuel might have noticed the growing shadow moving behind him as the form of a curvaceous, statuesque woman with undulating hair drifted off the wall and into the room.

Manuel threw the cellphone on the bed, just behind Kimberly. “I’m so fucking mad right now. I need to fuck you again just to calm my ass down. Take them damn clothes off, girl!”

He began to unbuckle his pants.

Kimberly neither moved or gave any indication that she heard him.

“Bitch, perhaps you didn’t hear Daddy! I said…”

Then he heard the hissing. He turned around.

“What the fu—”

The entity grabbed Manuel by the shoulders, accosting him as if he were a small child, with a strength that dwarfed his. The ten snakes in the apparition’s hair lunged forward, each of the mouths burying fangs into his flesh. His chocolate brown skin turned a marble-like grey as the poisons filled his body. He screamed for only a few seconds as the toxins quickly petrified his vocal chords.

Kimberly peripherally caught a split second of Manuel’s agonized last moments before she closed her eyes. The monster must have sensed that Kimberly had peeked because she heard the voice again.

DO NOT LOOK AT ME!

A moment later, Manuel’s lifeless body crashed down to the floor with a ‘thud’ in front of Kimberly. Her eyes drifted down. Whatever had been injected into him was toxic enough to literally melt him. Flesh and muscles bubbled into a jelly. Bones disintegrated to ash trapped inside the jelly. Hours from now, a large black stain on the carpet would be all that remained. She closed her eyes but couldn’t escape the image of the mess on the floor.

Go to your grandmother, that she might teach you the ways of your ancestors and not the way of the idolaters that brought your people here in bondage.

“My grandmother? Who are you?”

I am the one who was defiled by one of my gods, made an abomination by another, and rejected and vilified by my own kind. It was only in the underworld that I found the orishas and loa and ascended ones of Africa. Like me, they want actual justice meted out in this world and the next. I am Medusa, The Accursed One! Evil men feared me hundreds of years ago and they shall fear me again!

The shadow drifted back towards the wall from where it had entered and disappeared. Sensing that the gorgon had left, Kimberly opened her eyes and looked again at what was left of Manuel. Recoiled on the bed, she suppressed a scream and cried quietly for a few minutes.

It would take her some time, but she eventually found the strength to get dressed, grab her things, and leave the hotel.

~*~

“This bastard is gonna act all indignant, like he was parent of the decade! Fucking dream-slaying, hating-ass Negro!”

Cathy drove her white BMW M4 Coupé as fast as New York City’s FDR Drive would allow, which during rush hour on a Wednesday wasn’t nearly as fast as she preferred. Before her girlfriend Nicole called, Cathy had been cursing up a storm as she cut off more cautious drivers with signal-free lane changes and flipped them her middle finger whenever they dared honked their horns in protest.

“So he’s blaming you?” Nicole’s voice blared over the car’s speakers. Nicole, like Cathy, was a dedicated party girl, enabler, and equal opportunity narcissist. She was the shoulder to cry on, the friend who took Cathy’s side no matter how horrible she’d acted or how ridiculous her course of action. “Him and his damn cupcakes! Fuck him! Y’all are doing the right thing! Manuel is going to make your baby a star. He told me so!”

“That’s right. And so what if she lost her virginity to him? Shit, that’s Manuel Hightower! The motherfuckers we lost our virginity to wasn’t even close to that stature!”

“Child! I know that’s right!”

Betrayer of women! Betrayer of your own child! You gave your child’s innocence and honor away for nothing!

“Bitch! What you said?”

“I said, ‘child, I know that’s right’. What you thought I said?”

Cathy’s eyes caught a flash of the gorgon’s red gaze in her rearview mirror. The hair snakes’ fangs found Cathy’s ears, neck, and skull. The last thing Cathy saw was her milk chocolate complexion turning green-ish grey as the car swerved out of control, bounced off an Acura RDX, then slammed straight into a guardrail. Despite the damage to the car, Nicole’s voice could still be heard asking if her friend was okay.

Until the gas tank exploded.

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: Paul Tremblay

If you missed last week’s Fiction Fragments, you missed a great interview with Linda D. Addison. Linda has been an inspiration to me since I attended my first World Horror Convention back in 2013, but it was her acceptance speech for her Lifetime Achievement Award at StokerCon in 2018 that made me want to be just like her when I grow up. Do yourself a favor and check out last week’s Fiction Fragments with Linda.

This week, I am super excited to welcome award-winning horror writer Paul Tremblay to Girl Meets Monster. I’ve really enjoyed Paul’s work and look forward to reading more. And, hopefully, I’ll get over my social awkwardness enough to talk to him beyond saying “hello” the next time I see him at an event.

Paul Tremblay has won the Bram Stoker, British Fantasy, and Massachusetts Book awards and is the author of Survivor SongGrowing Things, The Cabin at the End of the World, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, A Head Full of Ghosts, and the crime novels The Little Sleep and No Sleep Till Wonderland. His essays and short fiction have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Entertainment Weekly online, and numerous year’s-best anthologies. He has a master’s degree in mathematics and lives outside Boston with his family.

twitter and instagram: @paulgtremblay
website: www.paultremblay.net
author photo credit: Allan Amato

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Paul. You’ve had a lot of success with your writing, and that success is well-deserved. Back in March, I interviewed Bracken MacLeod, who has also had some success with his work, and I asked him to talk about the concept of impostor syndrome. For many writers, even after they’ve had their work published and had some success with their writing, they still experience feelings of doubt about their writing. As a writer who has won some prestigious awards, does that kind of recognition make it easier or more difficult to approach your craft? Personally, I suffer from a fear of success, because success often means there are greater expectations for your next effort, and that also means more work on your part. Has success in your writing been helpful or a hindrance?

PT: Thank you for having me here, Michelle.

I never feel like I know what the hell I’m doing in writing, or in life, frankly. The self-doubt, particularly while in the middle of a novel/story, doesn’t go away, and if anything, has intensified, which is more than kind of disheartening/disappointing. While having published books under my belt helps my confidence a little (proof that I have in fact, somehow, finished books before), it only helps a little. I’ve found a more regular writing schedule is more effective at keeping the self-doubts from becoming paralyzing; it’s easier to chalk up a bad day as simply a bad day if there are good or so-so days surrounding it.

Successes (however those might be described, from selling a story to a market or editor you really wanted to work with to signing a book deal) certainly can be a hurdle to the next or new project. For novels, I try to make each one feel different in some way (it could be something as simple as switching up the music I listen to when writing, a new notebook for notes, or even a tweak or change in process or approach) if nothing else to remind me this new book is not the prior one. It is its own thing, for good or bad. When I struggled during the writing of Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, my follow up to A Head Full of Ghosts, I emailed my friend/mentor Stewart O’Nan. In the email I whined that this new book wasn’t coming as easily (the lie of memory; all your completed stories or books were easier to write in your memory than in the moment) and while I felt confident about AHFoG, I feared that this new book wasn’t going to be as good, etc. Expecting a pep talk back from Stewart, he instead sent me exactly what I needed to hear. He wrote, “Eh, not everything you write is going to be great.” He was of course correct, and I laughed, released a lot of my self-imposed pressure with an exhale, and grinded out a book of which I’m very proud.

GMM: I enjoyed your fragment. I assume the title is a parody of Shirley Jackson’s novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Based on what you’ve shared, I get the feeling this story is set in a post-apocalyptic amusement park with a fairy tale theme. I’m not 100 percent sure what’s happening, but our narrator is interesting and seems well-informed about the world around him/her. Without giving away too many spoilers, what is the premise of the story and what can you tell us about the narrator?

PT: Yes, it’s definitely a riff on my favorite Shirley Jackson novel and I’m not 100% sure what’s happening either! Heh.

When my two kids were younger, we took them to a regionally famous amusement called Story Land. The park is really geared for kids younger than 10 years old with each ride and attraction based on a fairy tale. During one visit a thunderstorm cropped up and the four of us (along with some other families) holed up inside a giant pumpkin. Well, it was some form of plastic and mortar (maybe?) pumpkin. And as my mind tends to wander to horror/weird scenarios, I imagined what would happen if we had to live at the park, what would drive us to live at the park? Clearly Cinderella’s castle would be the prime real estate if people were going to divvy up the place. The ‘castle’ in my title references Cinderella’s at Story Land. The narrator of this story is more sinister than Merricat Blackwood, but I tried to make him playfully mischievous. There has been some sort of apocalypse and people are living/surviving at the various rides and attractions within the amusement park. An absurdist premise, but one I hoped would play on people’s post-apocalyptic fantasies: the idea that yes of course *you* would be one of the ones to survive. Maybe not on the Polar Coaster though? Our narrator covets and schemes to take over the best place to live in the park, the castle (because of its size and easily defendable location), though as the story progresses his mental state disintegrates.

GMM: Many writers have been affected by the pandemic and the political climate. Some positively. Some negatively. Have changes to expectations around your course delivery as a teacher had an impact on your time? Has your productivity changed? What projects have you been working on that keep you motivated to stay on track?

PT: It has been difficult to focus on writing/creating, difficult to tear myself away from news, particularly online news, and difficult to not perseverate on worries and real-world fears. I’ve been more forgiving of myself for not being as productive (in terms of words written) as I would like. But I do force myself to write at some point as I do have a novel contractually due in May of 2021. As the calendar turns to fall, I’m not sure how going back to school will impact my writing work, and to be honest, I’m not even sure what school is going to look like, even at this late date.

After having a difficult time doing so when stay-at-home began, I have been doing a lot of reading, which, for me, is as important as writing to my work as a writer. My two prior novels, The Cabin at the End of the World and Survivor Song purposefully reflect (I hope) the anxieties of living in Trumplandia. And with Survivor Song in particular, it has been strange releasing a virus/pandemic novel. So, I don’t have any interest in writing about *this* pandemic, at least not directly. The project I am currently working on is a novel, one (thankfully) I had the idea hit me in late fall of 2019, so when I am able to write and sink into the book, it has been a welcomed escape from reality. Though I have noticed our now sneaking in and in unexpected places (given the novel starts in 1988).

Fragment from “We Will Never Live in the Castle”

polar coaster

Mr. Matheson lives over in Heidi’s Hill, we confab every three days in the old mist tent between the World Pavilion and my Slipshod Safari Tour, but today he’s late for our date, he scurries and hurries into the tent, something’s up.

Mr. Matheson says, She took over the Polar Coaster, he says, I don’t know if Kurt just up and left or if she chased him off or killed him but he’s gone and now she’s there.

I thought we’d never be rid of that idiot kid, he used to eat grass and then puke it all up.

I say, Who is she, what’s she look like, does she have a crossbow?

He says, She’s your age of course, medium-size, bigger than my goat anyway, and quiet, I didn’t get a great look at her, but I know she’s there, she wears a black cap, she just won’t talk to me.

Why would she say anything to him, I only talk to him out of necessity, necessity is what rules my life, necessity is one of the secrets to survival, I’ll give other secrets later, maybe when we take the tour.

Mr. Matheson and me have a nice symbiosis thing going, he gets to stay alive and enjoy a minimum base of human contact, he keeps an eye on my Slipshod Safari Tour’s rear flank, last year he saw these two bikers trying to ambush me via Ye Olde Mist Tent, Mr. Matheson gave me that goat’s call of his, he is convincing, I took care of the burly thunderdome bikers, they tried to sneak down the tracks and past the plastic giraffe, the one with a crick in its neck and the missing tail, typical stupid new hampshire rednecks, not that there’s a new hampshire anymore, live free or die bitches, their muscles and tattoos didn’t save them, little old me, all one-hundred-thirty-two pounds of me, me and necessity.

Mr. Matheson is clearly disappointed she won’t talk to him, whoever she is, he’s probably taken stupid risks to his own skin, and by proxy mine, trying to get her attention, it’s so lame and predictable, because of the fleeting sight of a mysterious girl the old man would jeopardize my entire operation here, Mr. Matheson is down to his last goat, the house on Heidi’s Hill is a small one room dollhouse with a mini bed mini table mini chair, no future there, it’s a good place for a geezer with a white beard going yellow, straw on his face, getting ready to die, no place for a girl, she needs space, the Polar Coaster is a decent spot, back when Fairy Tale Land was up and running the Polar Coaster was one of the most popular rides, I never got to work it, they kept me over on the Whirling Whales, a toddler ride.

At the Polar Coaster the fiberglass igloo and icebergs are holding up okay, they make good hidey holes, warmth and shelter in the winter, shade in the summer, some reliable food stores, wild blueberry bushes near the perimeter of its northern fence, birds nest in the tracks, free pickings of eggs and young, small duck pond in the middle of it all and with ample opportunity to trap smaller critters, the Polar Coaster might be the third best spot in the park behind my Slipshod Safari Tour and Cinderella’s Castle, of course, third because it’s a little too out in the open for my tastes, everyone who comes to Fairy Tale Land always goes to the Castle and then the Polar Coaster.

I ask, Do you know her name?

Mr. Matheson says, She won’t talk to me, remember.

Yeah, I remember, but sometimes it’s hard when every day is the same.

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.

Fiction Fragments: Hailey Piper

Back in May I said I would be taking a hiatus until July. Technically, that’s true because I sent out invites to writers and began scheduling this new round of posts in July. This post begins a new cycle of the Fiction Fragments series, and happens to be my 50th post by the way.

Last time on Fiction Fragments, Nelson W. Pyles joined Girl Meets Monster. If you haven’t read Nelson’s fragment, you should. I had a great time chatting with him about his fiction and podcast, The Wicked Library. Today, I am excited to welcome horror writer Hailey Piper, whose Twitter bio challenges us to “Make horror gay AF.” Intrigued? You should be.

Hailey Piper is the author of The Possession of Natalie GlasgowAn Invitation to Darkness, and Benny Rose, the Cannibal King. She is a member of the HWA, and her short fiction appears in Daily Science Fiction, The Arcanist, Flash Fiction OnlineYear’s Best Hardcore Horror, and elsewhere. She lives with her wife in Maryland, where she haunts their apartment making spooky noises.

Links/handles:
Twitter: @HaileyPiperSays
Instagram: @haileypiperfights
Website: www.haileypiper.com
Amazon: www.amazon.com/author/haileypiper

Three Questions (+1)

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Hailey. Your fragment was the first piece of fiction of yours I’ve read, and now I not only want to know what’s happening in this story, but I’m looking forward to reading more of your work. Sunflower seems to be a strong character, and I’m guessing that she’s either in her teens or a young adult. Is The Storm YA Horror, or do you typically write for an older audience? Who are you hoping to attract to your fiction?

HP: Thank you for having me, Michelle! You guess correctly; Sunflower is 19, though I wouldn’t say the book is YA. I haven’t really dipped into YA and tend to label my work as adult fiction. That said, I never really know where to find the line. I was reading adult books at age 8 and watching R-rated horror movies by 9, so my idea of what’s right for any age is skewed.

GMM: Monsters and body horror are two of my favorite elements in genre fiction. Your fragment has both. Without giving away too much about the story, what kind of monster is Unchol? Is Unchol a she? What kind of monster is Mother? Do you have a preference for female monsters? What makes them scary?

HP: I love monsters too! Unchol and Sunflower’s mother are both the kinds of monsters that have stepped out of Sunflower’s past, perhaps the worst kind of monster in that at one point she thought she’d escaped them. I’m not sure if I have a monster gender preference; I can think of so many fun and/or scary ones of all kinds. But we could always use more lady monsters since there aren’t as many!

GMM: I agree that there is a lack of lady monsters in speculative fiction. Who or what are some of your favorite female monsters in horror, either in movies or fiction?

HP: I’ve always loved Mothra. Mother Suspiriorum from the Suspiria remake is another. And I don’t know if she counts, but if so, the car Christine is a favorite too!

GMM: How much of an impact does your identity have on your writing? I mentioned in your intro that your Twitter profile challenges us to “Make horror gay AF.” What does that mean for you? More gay horror writers? More gay characters? How can the genre open up to include more gay voices in horror?

HP: My identity has a tremendous impact. Who I am influences what I write. I think that’s every writer to some degree, whether they know it or not. As for “make horror gay AF,” partly it’s a statement of intent. I write queer characters, and even those times I don’t, I often write queer themes. But as a matter of how to do that? Yes, more queer writers, editors, characters. Opening up means a lot of things, such as wrestling with a past that vilified queer characters, with not fearing scrutiny over being inclusive. As with any underrepresented group, we have different voices and stories to share. I’ve been fortunate to work with incredibly supportive editors and readers, and my hope is that other queer horror authors will find that kind of support too.

Fragment from The Storm (working title):

“You’re not real,” Sunflower said, trembling.

“I was real when we met,” Unchol said. “And I’m real now. You wanted me to be your nightmare, but that doesn’t make me one.” Her bulbous head loomed, and her bony fingers latched onto Sunflower’s arm. “Besides, you’re not that afraid of me. Not the angel, either. But your mother, she’s the one who told you angels can’t help—she broke that dream. Even I can’t eat dreams, but your mother can.”

Sunflower had known that for the longest time. She tried to flinch back, but Unchol wouldn’t let go. A memory surged from deep inside of a glassy glare in the dark. Mother was always watching.

Raindrops slid down the Unchol’s noseless face. Her white eye shined in the dark. “I told you she’d find you, remember? No matter where you go, she’ll come for you. She’ll watch.” Her teeth slid close to Sunflower’s face. “But you can be something she’ll refuse to watch. I can give that to you.”

Sunflower glanced through the rain, where the mound of false mothers dampened under the storm.

Unchol glanced back. “I was trying to help. You keep bringing her back, and I keep taking her away.” Her throat bulged, and she wretched to one side. A new corpse slithered down her gray tongue and onto the ground. Dark mud splattered its familiar white dress. She had no face. “But you keep making more. If you want to be rid of her forever, you’ll have to become like me.”

Someone shouted from far away, but Sunflower couldn’t hear that well through the rain. Was that Olivia, shouting for her to stop? No, she was gone.

Unchol’s toes gripped the mud. “Be like me. It’ll end, after all these years. Better to be the monster than the loser, right?”

Sunflower looked to the faceless corpse. She’d felt stronger and free those days when she’d run off the boys and raise hell across Chapel Hill. Yet every time she came home, Mother sucked the life out, same as any vampire. Sunflower had only been strong in that house for one night, wrong yet good, at least until the end.

She hadn’t felt strong since, no matter where she went.

And Unchol knew it. Her gray lips peeled back in a grin. “I want the gift. Give it to me, and I’ll make the monster.”

“You can take that away?” Sunflower asked. This burden had twisted inside her for too long, and while it might have helped Olivia, there had been too many other troubles to count. Angels, corpses, this whole hellish night. Sunflower had done terrible things, and not only when she didn’t mean to. She eyed the corpse pile again.

She could stop this if she had the will.

Olivia was still shouting in the distance, something about not listening to Unchol. But she wasn’t close, and she didn’t feel the same as Sunflower did when they looked at Mother’s bodies. The gift could erase them, but they’d never stop coming. Dead or alive.

Behind the bodies stood Mother herself. Could she be the last? Not if they kept coming.

Not if Sunflower kept the gift. “Stop looking at me!” she snapped. “Stop judging me!”

Unchol’s throat rumbled.

Sunflower turned to her. “I don’t want it anymore. I want to make her go away.”

Unchol flashed her teeth. She leaned toward Sunflower, mouth open wide enough to swallow her head, and covered her face in swampy blackness.

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.

You Want to Put That Where?: A Review of Elizabeth Amber’s The Lords of Satyr Series

About a year ago, while thrift shopping, I picked up three paperbacks with smoking hot half-naked men on the cover. Technically, that would have been enough to grab my interest, especially with this warning on the back of the books:

WARNING! This is a REALLY HOT book. (Sexually Explicit)

I don’t know about you, but as a writer of dark speculative fiction who dips her toes in erotica/paranormal romance, that is a goal worth attaining. It is my dream to have that kind of warning on the back of my books. Honestly, having someone feel embarrassed to be caught reading one of my books is something I am working hard to achieve. While I personally feel no shame in being caught reading Elizabeth Amber’s books, she did her damnedest to make me blush.

Like I said, smoking hot dudes on the covers and the promise of unspeakable perversions would have been enough, but with the added bonus of mythological creatures who worship Bacchus, the original Lord of Kink, how could I not read this series of books?

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Ancient Grecian Erotica

Spoilers Ahead

The series examines the romantic lives of nine male characters, all satyrs, and the struggles they face living among humans undetected, threats to their power from both humans (EarthWorld) and non-humans (ElseWorld), while falling in love with their female partners (human and non-human) while the female partners try to thwart the efforts of the smoking hot satyrs to mate and marry them.

The novels are set in Italy, both Tuscany and Rome, with stopovers in Paris, Venice, and of course, ElseWorld. There is a stunning array of villains, all of which would lead you to believe that a certain percentage of the Italian population are sadistic perverts who thrive on enslaving others for their basest desires, and who aren’t above incest.

The female characters, almost all of which are virgins, carry the weight of the world on their shoulders and keep their darkest secrets away from the men who want to rescue them. In each book, the main story arc deals with miscommunication, one of the satyrs saving a damsel in distress after discovering all the sordid details of their pasts that they have almost no control over, and then we get a happy ending. Okay, lots of happy endings, if you know what I mean. So, essentially Elizabeth Amber has written several novels that are at their most basic level a comedy of errors, but you know, with huge satyr penises.

In fact, Elizabeth Amber never wants us to forget just how huge those satyr penises are. And, if that isn’t interesting enough, once a month at the full moon, the satyrs grow a second huge penis that disappears after the first mating during the full moon. In case you’re wondering how that extra appendage gets used during the full moon, think double penetration, but with only one partner. I’ll give you a few moments to let that sink in, pun intended.

Fun Facts About Satyr Lords

So many satyrs to choose from: There are two main satyr clans, one in Tuscany (Nicholas, Raine and Lyon) and one in Rome (Dane, Bastian, Sevin and Lucien); however, there is a satyr from ElseWorld, Dominic, who is super duper hot as well.

Magical semen: Satyrs can control the potency of their semen, and are only able to conceive with their partners on the full moon. But only if they DECIDE to impregnate their partner. Their semen also technically has healing properties and enhances their protective magic to keep their partners safe.

Blue balls = death: If the satyrs do not ejaculate within their partner at least once during the full moon, they will die. No, seriously. One of them almost dies because the woman he is trying to woo keeps refusing his sexual advances. Satyrs use this excuse on a regular basis to get laid, and it totally works.

Satyrs are heteroflexible: Two of the satyrs have relationships with somewhat unusual partners. One is involved with a hermaphrodite who has both male and female genitalia that are fully functional. And another is involved with a creature called an Ephemeral, who must inhabit the bodies of people who are about to die in order to have a tangible physical body in EarthWorld. Occasionally, she has to put on a male skin suit. Body snatchers can’t be choosers. Two of the hottest sex scenes in the novels are technically homoerotic and blur the lines between sexuality.

Virgins are irresistible: In almost every case, the love interests of the satyrs are virgins before they mate with them. Which, in most cases, causes some anxiety for these women when they see the size of the satyr penises for the first time. Not to mention the appearance of a second penis. I mean, almost invariably, the women compare the satyr penises to size of their forearms. Again, let that sink in. If you can.

Satyrs can last all night long: As you might imagine, satyrs have high sex drives and are notoriously good lovers. During full moon, they MUST have sex over and over until the dawn and take every precaution not to injure their partners. They use an elixir to essentially drug their partners, which I suppose is akin to magical Rohypnol. They employ other methods, beyond four play and lube, to make their partners’ experiences pleasurable.

I’m not going to give away anymore of their secrets and spoil all the fun, I’ll let you find out some of the other…interesting methods the satyrs use to prevent chafing. I can’t recommend this series enough. If you enjoy super hot paranormal romance. If you love huge satyr penises. If you love sexy, tall, dark and handsome romantic heroes. If you like kinky sex. If you are looking for an escape from your daily routine to the Italian countryside. These are the books for you.

Seriously, smoking hot paranormal lovers with not one, but two huge penises. What’s not to like?

Fiction Fragments: Michael Burke

Last week, I spoke with Gabriela Vargas about feminism, poetry, and why you should submit your work for publication. And this week, I am happy to welcome comic book aficionado and speculative fiction writer, Michael Burke.

authorphoto

Michael Burke was born and raised in Massachusetts. His love of books was sparked by finding his father’s stash of pulp hero novels at a young age. The lurid, frenetic art of Frank Frazetta captivated his imagination and he needed to know what was happening to the characters behind those covers.

A Spider-Man comic book purchased for him by his father was his steady companion as he taught himself to read. This effort was not only rewarded by finally discovering what happened to those pulp heroes but also with a lifelong love of the comic book medium.

He co-founded the comic book store, Comicazi in 2000. It has won several Best Of Boston awards and in 2017, won the prestigious Eisner Spirit Of Retail award. Michael is also a licensed pharmacy technician. He has had all manner of jobs in his life ranging from painter to photographer to bouncer to roadie to office work to construction. He still does not know what he wants to be when he grows up but he’s enjoying the ride. Through it all, he has written and told stories. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife, the best story he’s ever been a part of.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Michael. Comic books have a reputation of being one of the first forms of fiction children become connected with as readers. Comics have obviously had a positive impact on your life, how have they influenced your writing? What titles would you recommend to kids who are reluctant to pick up a book?

MB: Hi Michelle. Thank you for having me. Comic books have definitely impacted my life in a positive way. My dad saw my interest at a very young age. I had found a shoebox full of his paperbacks. Conan, Tarzan, Executioner, Doc Savage. In the late 60s, lots of those pulp-era characters had been reprinted by publishers. The covers captivated me. He fostered that interest and got me a Spider-Man comic book. He and my mom helped teach me to read when they could but I was ravenous and forged ahead on my own.

That early exposure to comics helped my reading comprehension at an early age and propelled my interest in seeking out all manner of reading material. My formative years were spent with my head buried in books and comics. I’ve loved the comic medium my whole life. I started writing my own stories in third grade; they were very much influenced by the comic characters I was reading. When I was ten-years-old I even created my own superhero complete with origin and costume design and mailed it off to Marvel Comics. I never made a copy of that, darn it! On some level, I feel that I’ve always written with that certain measure of bombast inherent in comics. Well, super-hero comics. As I got older and my tastes expanded, I saw that comics could tell even more stories.

One of the reasons comics are great is that they’re unique in that they have always both influenced and reflected popular culture. I daresay that I would not have read half as many of the books that I have if it weren’t for comics. And, of course, my passion for comics lead me to co-founding a comic book store. We focus our efforts on building and maintaining community and welcoming all with open arms. Some of my favorite recollections of time in the shop are of speaking with new fans of the medium and of talking with kids.

There are scores of comic titles to recommend to kids today. Far more choices than there were for me as a kid. Our shop has a large all-ages section we keep well-stocked. Lots of families come in and kids from pre-school to teenage come in. I’d recommend the Amulet series by Kazu Kabuishi; any of the books by Raina Telgemeier (Guts; Smile; Sisters; Drama; Ghosts); Nimona by Noelle Stevenson; Bone by Jeff Smith. There are plenty of Star Wars Adventures digests for younger readers because, let’s face it, most kids like Star Wars at some point. There’s always an audience for the standby titles like Disney characters and Archie and Classics Illustrated. There’s really no shortage of comic titles that a kid can get started reading.

GMM: Tell me about your fragment. Who is Ahanu, and where will his journey lead him? Can you share a synopsis of the story without giving away too many spoilers? What inspired this story?

MB: My excerpt is from a novella that I’m writing. It’s called A Parliament of Owls. It’s a sword-and-sorcery tale with horror elements and influenced by Native American folklore. I struck upon the idea last year and wrote it as a short story for my writing group. I got tons of constructive feedback and with that, plus the notes I took, I realized that this was a longer story. I’ve been sitting on it for a bit, letting it simmer in the back of my head, as I worked on other things. But it’s ready to come out now.

The inspiration for the story is very much from my love of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories. My dad’s old paperbacks were definitely the fuel for this. Sword-and-sorcery is a subset of fantasy; it has elements of the supernatural present and the tales are often fast-paced, placing the protagonist in a personal struggle. They’re often set in a semi-mythic realm, although there can sometimes be some historical aspects present. The stories do not deal with earth-shattering problems and epic dangers like Lord of the Rings and other high fantasy sagas.

Ahanu Foxcloud is a young man, barely twenty, and an orphan. His mother was a powerful witch with a mysterious past. This fact put her at odds with the elders of her tribe. Ahanu wants to know more about his mother but feels stymied by the village council. He also feels like an outcast among his own people. There may be a reason for that and some of that may be his own insecurities. There’s a young girl in the village, Halyn, that he sees as a sister. She keeps him on an even keel. Ahanu often butts heads with authority and is frustrated by the traditions his people follow when he imagines a larger world beyond his own.

The world makes itself known as even larger than he could have imagined when Halyn and other children go missing. Ahanu scoffs at the explanation given to him for this and sets out on his own to discover what happened. That confrontation will expand his horizons and teach him a thing or two about growing up.

I plan on writing several short stories about Ahanu and his adventures. I’m starting to flesh out the world I want to have him populate and having fun doing so. Looking into more Native American mythology to help influence further adventures has been very interesting and I look forward to adding more of these components. As I move forward with Ahanu, I plan on teasing out facts of his mother’s past and how that ties in with the character that I want him to become.

GMM: You write speculative fiction, but what genre is your favorite to read? Write? Why do you feel drawn to that genre? Is there a genre you enjoy reading but haven’t written in, and why?

MB: Oh gosh, that’s tough. I’ve followed a general pattern through my life. It started with my dad’s Conan and Tarzan books. Those lead me to other books by those authors, of course, but after that, I read other fantasy and adventure books. From there, I moved into science fiction, then horror. Back to fantasy in the nineties when there was no end to those multi-book high fantasy series. Then it was urban fantasy and science fiction. Then mystery and horror. Those were the big beats and I tried other things that struck my fancy at the time. I’d have to say science fiction is probably my favorite to read. It’s a sprawling genre that hits many of my buttons. What I like about science fiction is that element of social commentary. When I was younger and reading works by Ursula K. LeGuin and watching Star Trek reruns and didn’t know the term “social commentary”. I liked thinking about the lesson it put forth.

My favorite genre to write is the first one I was exposed to. I’m having fun with Ahanu’s sword-and-sorcery tale. It just came a lot easier to me than other pieces I’ve written. Maybe because it’s been with me for so long. I love horror and science fiction, too, but I think I struggle a bit more with those genres.

I’ve read a lot of detective/mystery stuff. Parker’s Spenser; the Burke series from Andrew Vacchs; the classic authors of the genre: Chandler, Hammett. Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie’s Poirot. I’m really digging Walter Mosley’s Leonid McGill character right now. I like a lot of it but I’ve never attempted to write a mystery. As I travel along my writing path, I’m beginning to find the value in outlining my stories. Typically, I imagine a scene/idea and just write. A friend of mine calls it “discovery writing”. I know there are writers who do it that way and there are writers who outline and there’s probably a number who fall somewhere in between. There’s no right or wrong way to write your tale. But I don’t think I’ve tried my hand at a mystery because I feel that it would require more of an outline style than my discovery method. Perhaps as I settle into a writing method that works best for me, I’ll give a mystery tale a shot one day.

Excerpt from PARLIAMENT OF OWLS

A gibbous moon filled the sky, its eerie half-light falling between the canopy of branches above Ahanu’s campsite. The air had only cast off some of the day’s humidity; the night was close and thick. Low sounds echoed throughout the forest as nocturnal creatures stalked. The campfire sputtered low. Ahanu sat with his back to a big stump and gazed into the dying flames, worry gnawing at his gut. The past day filled his mind. Anger and fear continued their hold on him as images of Moki and the elders sneered at him. His mother had always been at odds with Moki and he knew, just knew, that they had it in for him.

Dim remembrances of his long-gone mother replaced the angry visages of the tribal leaders. Feelings, more truly. A sense of comfort. He was so young when she was taken, it was all he could do to keep her face in his memory.

That melancholy flowed into the reason he was out here in the woods. He had to find Halyn. She had been gone too long. And she was little older than he was when he lost his mother. She was as a sister.

Grim thoughts stayed with him as his head lolled. His eyes drifted shut and the fire sparked its last.

An indeterminate time passed. The moon kept its counsel. All was tranquil.

A feminine trill whispered through the darkness. The night fell quiet. Ahanu breathed deeper but did not stir.

Again, that soft sound. Kijiru awoke and snorted, head and tail high.

“Easy, girl,” Ahanu opened his eyes. “What is it?” he clambered to his feet, grabbing his axe from the ground as he rose. He walked to the mare, all the while his amber eyes darted. He whispered reassuringly to the horse but she was uneasy.

The fire had died but the high moon cast more than enough light, albeit the effect through the trees made it appear some manner of spectral plane. The heavy, humid night air leant a certain lethargy to Ahanu’s movements. His head was still fogged with sleep. He stood beside Kijiru, slowly brushing his hand through her brown mane.

A long, low rasp sounded. It sounded very much like a sharp blade being dragged across a stone. Ahanu started, tightening his grip on the axe handle. Kijiru shuffled her feet. He moved from the horse, looking about. That sound worried at the edges of his memory but he could not recall the context. He moved about the site in a slow circle, eyes trained into the dark.

A short, vibratory song called next, almost as if a caged bird were nearby. Ahanu saw nothing. The fine hairs on his arm stood straight and he felt a cold tickle at the base of his neck.

“I bid thee greetings, O man” a soft voice came from the dark. It seemed to come from all directions at once.

Ahanu whipped his head about left and right, trying to ascertain the voice’s origin. “Who goes there?”

“Just a wanderer of the wood. I saw your fire and thought to avail myself of a fellow wayfarer’s kindness,” the voice crooned. It seemed to come from his left.

Ahanu’s thoughts felt sluggish. He stood a moment, determining if this were a dream. He shook cobwebs from his mind and glanced at the ashes of the campfire. It was dead.

“My fire, eh? When was that?”

“Do you not offer hospitality to another traveler, then?” The voice was now behind him.

Ahanu whirled, his knuckles white on his axe handle. “Step forward, woman, if woman, you be, and not some damned forest spirit!”

A slight glimmer of motion rippled in the corner of his eye. He turned to his right and took a step in that direction. Kijiru whinnied nervously. Ahanu’s eyes widened as a face materialized from the dark. Ice-white tresses cascaded in a silvery frame about a beautiful face. Eyes darker than arboreal shadows regarded him coldly. Ahanu stopped, awestruck.

He stared, enrapt, following the bodiless face as it moved about the campsite. He dimly noted that it was odd how the face would sometimes change in height as it moved. Almost as if it were a bird alighting on branches.

“No forest spirit am I, but a woman.” A note of anger sounded deep in her voice. “And you would do well to accord me respect.”

Ahanu retreated a step, superstitious fear driving him back. He considered his next words but held his tongue. The face had not moved. It hovered, ghostly, in the moonlight.

“Well? Boy.” The word dripped from cruel lips.

The tableau held for several moments until Kijiru let loose with a loud snort. Ahanu blinked hard and in a fluid motion, hurled his near-forgotten axe at the apparition.

A horrible hiss sounded and the lovely visage winked out like a blown candle flame. Ahanu heard heavy wings and could swear he glimpsed a dark form take flight. He shook his head in an effort to clear his dazzled vision.

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: Todd Sullivan

Last week, I had the pleasure of chatting with Jessica McHugh about YA fiction and how horror and humor come together in her stories. This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes Todd Sullivan.

image0 (2)Todd Sullivan teaches English as a Second Language, and English Literature & Writing in Asia. He has had numerous short stories, novelettes, and novellas published across several countries, including Thailand, the U.K., Australia, the U.S., and Canada. He is a practitioner of the sword-fighting martial arts, kumdo/kendo, and has trained in fencing (foil), Muay Thai, Capoeira, Wing Chun, and JKD. He graduated from Queens College with a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, and received a Bachelor of Arts in English from Georgia State University. He attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the National Book Foundation Summer Writing Camps. He currently lives in Taipei, Taiwan, and looks forward to studying Mandarin.

Three Questions

GMM: Hi Todd, welcome to Girl Meets Monster. After reading your fragment, I wondered what inspired the story, as well as what specific genre it fits into. There are young characters, so I thought YA and since there’s magic, I placed it in fantasy. Do you normally write YA fantasy, or do you write within other genres and subgenres?

TS: I wrote this story while teaching at a Language School in Seoul. One of the students was fond of drawing, and he was also a poor student academically. He was under a lot of pressure to do better in his classes, and soon he was going to take entrance exams for a boarding school in China.

This real-life scenario became the genesis of Test Amongst the Shadows, wherein a teenager, who happens to be a mage in the world of humans, has to pass an exam that is important to him. The narrative follows the different methods he employs to cheat since he knows he cannot pass the test on his own.

Test Amongst the Shadows is YA urban fantasy fiction, and eventually I’ll develop the idea into a novella series.

I also write across genres, including horror and light science fiction.

GMM: The interaction between your characters also reminded me of Japanese manga and anime stories. Do you enjoy anime? How has it influenced your writing? What are some of your favorite anime series or characters?

TS: I love anime, and it has had a significant influence on my writing. I remember the first time I saw Akira, which is the first major Japanese anime film many people around my age saw. This was in the 90s before the popularity of the internet when it was hard to find anime on American television.

One of the big differences between anime narratives and western narratives is that there are usually no purely evil characters. Westerners base a lot of their worldview on scripture: Heaven and Hell, good and evil. There is God, and there is Satan. There is a hero, and there is a villain.

Anime characters tend to be more flux in their alignment. Usually, the characters simply have objectives. Sometimes this objective brings great harm to one, or many, and that person will be the bad guy. The character with an objective that happens to include stopping the great harm to the one, or many, will be the good guy.

In Akira, there is no villain. There is a teen boy full of angst who accidentally achieves great power he cannot control. And there is his friend who must stop him, in a way out of friendship, out of knowing that the boy is in torment even as his power wrecks havoc upon the city.

In Dragon Ball Z, one of my favorite animes, Vegeta starts off as a central villain to Earth. He does so because he wants to escape the tyranny of one of DBZs purely evil characters, Frieza, and on Earth he thinks the means to do exists. Vegeta changes throughout the series, going from villain to anti-hero to hero.

Then there is Goku, a character whose goal of protecting the Earth conflicts with his overwhelming desire to improve his fighting abilities. This obsession Goku has indirectly causes great harm and misery to others.

The characters I write are similar to these Japanese figures. With few exceptions, my characters are not purely good, and they are not purely evil. Sometimes one of them will have a goal that brings suffering to others; and sometimes, another of them will have a goal that brings them into direct conflict with the first, and thus the suffering of others can be alleviated.

GMM: How long have you lived in Asia, and what aside from teaching English and Writing made you decide to move there? What cultural barriers have you experienced as a person of color living abroad? How have these experiences shaped your writing?

TS: I’ve lived in Asia ten years. After a three-week winter semester class where I studied Japanese authors in Tokyo during my MFA at Queens College, I knew that I wanted to come back to this part of the world and learn more about the people and the cultures.

Many Asian societies are homogeneous, so the presence of foreigners acts as a bit of a shock to their system. I think that being a foreigner in a homogeneous society is a good case study of how humans might react to the presence of aliens from outer space. There is simply a difficulty in processing the reality of that which is standing in front of you.

Writing-wise, I think this difficulty is best expressed in my fantasy novella series, The Windshine Chronicles. This series centers around a dark-skinned foreigner living in a fantasy version of Korea called South Hanguk. The series’ narrative is multilayered, but one of the themes is how the people of the country interact with foreigners, and how the foreigners struggle to exist in a country that isn’t their native home.

In The Windshine Chornicles, the idea that the human race is “one whole” is constantly put to the test.

From Test Amongst the Shadows, by Todd Sullivan

The hardest working mage who ever lived glanced at the clock on the wall. Twenty minutes. Jin gazed down at his English exam. Only twenty minutes left to pass or fail the biggest test of his life. His scantron sheet was half empty. The clock’s ticking seconds in the silent classroom echoed in his mind, and made focusing on English vocabulary and grammar impossible. He had to do something if he intended to get in the top of his class.

Jin looked around at the other students, their heads low, their shoulders hunched as they picked off ovals in the long marching columns. Adjusting his glasses, he opened his senses in search for the right spell amidst the thin cracks that splinter reality. He released control of his hand and let it draw six stick-figure bandits on horses at the edges of the exam. Leaning close to the page, he whispered, “Thieving shadows, take shape and learn the secrets of my woes.”

The drawings shivered, and the bandits shook themselves awake. They clawed out of the exam, erupting off the page into the third dimension. The cloaked leader saluted, his face hidden in shades of gray. Jin pointed to the answer key tucked under a notebook on the teacher’s desk. The leader nodded, and motioned to the silent troupe behind him. The bandits yanked on their horses’ reins and leapt off the side of the table. Racing across the tiled floor, the horses skirted around chair legs and hopped over sneakers. Jin glanced at the exam answer key again. The sides of his mouth spread in a triumphant smile, but a purple boot suddenly crushed the horsemen right before they cleared the classroom’s tables. Jin inhaled in surprised. He followed the boot up to the leg, the skirt, the shirt, to finally meet the steady gaze of Sori, the top student in the school.

And his ex-girlfriend.

The two maintained eye contact for several moments, a silent challenge passing between them. Sori had broken up with him right before exams, informing him that she wasted too much time with him and wasn’t focusing enough on the upcoming finals. And now, here she sat, the only other mage in this room of humans, stopping him from reaching his goal.

So that’s how it was going to be.

Jin slowly took off his glasses in preparation for his next spell. Sori had managed to see his bandits. He didn’t know how, but he would need to take care of her sight before he tried for the test answers again.

Jin narrowed his eyes at the light reflected in the lenses of his glasses. He smiled. He held the glasses to his lips and misted the lenses by blowing on one, then the other. While he did this, he focused on the magic vibrating between the fissures of reality until he heard the words to the next spell.

“Site sighted, two to see, sea bog fog billowing…”

“John?”

Jin snapped his mouth shut at the teacher speaking his English name. He tried to still his heart now thumping fast in his chest, and met the teacher’s puzzled blue eyes.

“Are you speaking to someone?”

Now the other students’ heads lifted, and before he knew it, dozens of humans were all staring in his direction. With their attention focused on him, he couldn’t produce magic. No mage could. Human disbelief in magic narrowed the fissures running throughout reality, making the words necessary to bring spells to life impossible to hear. Jin had been told that no mage had been able to perform magic in front of a human in hundreds of years.

He glanced at Sori, who was smiling at him as he sweated under the spotlight of mankind. With a weak shrug, Jin said, “I was just,” and he paused as he scrambled for a good excuse, “reading a problem out loud to myself.” He tapped the exam. “Sometimes that helps.”

The English teacher nodded. “Everyone must remain silent so that the other students can concentrate. Sorry, John.”

“Won’t happen again,” Jin assured him. He caught Sori’s smug wink, and tore his eyes away from his ex-girlfriend’s pretty face.

These exams determined who would be allowed to apply for the International School in Hong Kong. Only the top two students would be recommended. Jin felt confident about math and science, but he worried over his English scores. One of his classmates had lived in San Francisco for years. Jin only managed to edge him out sometimes, while Sori beat them both in every subject every, single, time.

She was a studying machine.

Jin looked at the clock again. Ten minutes to finish the exam. He had to cast another spell, but when he raised his eyes, he noticed the teacher looking around the room. Whereas before he hadn’t been paying much attention, now the teacher was watching them closely, all because of Sori. Jin really wished he had been able to cast his spell and blind her. Not only because he would have been able to get the answers without her trying to counter him, but because it would have stopped her from taking the test, maybe even causing her to fail.

That would have been sweet.

Jin’s eyes narrowed as a new idea struck him. He looked at the dusty blackboard behind the teacher and slowly raised his hand.

“Yes, John?” The teacher said. “Is something wrong?”

“Can I ask you a question?” Jin assumed his most perplexed look, and mixed in a little pained exasperation to make himself seem even more pathetic.

The teacher sighed and waved him forward. Jin stood. Only briefly, a couple of students glanced up at the newest disturbance, but their focus quickly returned to their exams. All, that is, except Sori, who watched Jin with a penetrating gaze. He wanted to give her the finger, but since the teacher was staring at him, he refrained as he passed her…

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.