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: Renee S. DeCamillis

Last week I chatted with Sonora Taylor about the zen of drinking tea during an alien invasion. Go check it out if you haven’t already.

This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes Renee S. DeCamillis. A few months ago I participated in an online coffee house where we both read some of our work. I really enjoyed listening to Renee’s reading from her novella, The Bone Cutters. I haven’t had a chance to read it, but it is on my TBR list.

Author of the psychological thriller/horror/supernatural novella The Bone Cutters, published through Eraserhead Press as part of their 2019 New Bizarro Authors Series, Renee is a member of the Horror Writers Association, the New England Horror Writers, and the Horror Writers of Maine.

She is also an Editorial Intern for the 5-time Bram Stoker award-winning speculative fiction and dark fiction publisher Crystal Lake Publishing, and a writer for Phi3 Comics. She has her BA in psychology from the University of Southern Maine, earned her MFA in Popular Fiction Writing from the Stonecoast Graduate Program, and attended Berklee College of Music as a music business major with guitar as her principle instrument. Her short fiction appears in Deadman’s Tome: The Conspiracy Issue, Siren’s Call eZine Issue 37 the 6th Annual Women In Horror Month Edition, The Other Stories Podcast. She has a story forthcoming in the 2020 anthology Wicked Women, a collection showcasing women writers of the NEHW. Also forthcoming is her first comic book, with a publication date TBD. Her poetry appears in The Horror Writers Association Poetry Showcase Volume IV. Renee is a former model, school rock band teacher, creative writing teacher, private guitar instructor, A&R rep for an indie record label, therapeutic mentor, psychological technician, and preschool teacher. She is also a former gravedigger; she can get rid of a body fast without leaving a trace, and she is not afraid of getting her hands dirty. Renee lives in the woods of Maine with her husband, their son, and a house full of ghosts.

Website: reneesdecamillis.com
Facebook: www.facebook.com/ReneeDeCamillis/
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/renee_s._decamillis/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/ReneeDeCamillis

Three Questions

GMM: Hello, Renee. Welcome to Girl Meets Monster. I’m so glad to have you here for a chat. After listening to your reading from The Bone Cutters back in July, I got very excited about reading your book. I’m slowly working on the sequel to Invisible Chains, and an asylum will be one of the main settings. My novel is set in the mid-nineteenth century, but your book opens in a more modern setting. A lot of mental health facilities closed in the 1980s and 1990s, what time period is The Bone Cutters taking place in? Is it an asylum or a hospital with a mental health ward? What kind of research did you do for the setting?

RSD: The time period for The Bone Cutters is now, today, and the setting is a psychiatric hospital, inspired by one that I used to work at as a psychological technician. That last part—the position I held while working there—is a bit of a funny because Dory, the main character of my book, really rips on psych techs because of her horrible previous experiences in mental health facilities with subpar staff who go unchecked by those in power. (Though I say it’s a bit of a funny, I do not mean that mistreatment of patients by staff is funny at all. I’ve witnessed neglect and mistreatment of patients by co-workers, and I reported all of it, which is part of what inspired me to write about horribly inept psych hospital staff.) I didn’t really need to do much research for this book because I have a degree in psychology, and I worked in the mental health field for quite a few years in various positions, providing various services. So, my research for the setting consisted of simply recalling memories from my experiences working in the mental health field, including my time as a psych tech in a psychiatric hospital.

GMM: The internal dialogue of your protagonist was fantastic and really conveyed the sense of confusion and discordant thoughts she’s experiencing while trying to come to terms with her new environment and her own mental illness…if she is really mentally ill. Without too many spoilers, can you give a little bit of background on your protagonist, what she’s experiencing, and what inspired this character?

RSD: Dory is quite a mixed bag of fucked up and beautiful. She is someone trying to stay safe while traveling through this crazy fucked up world that’s filled with predators and betrayers and manipulators. She’s a creative-minded loner who has suffered from multiple traumas and has no “real” family to speak of. She’s been betrayed and severely harmed by people who had claimed that they loved her, and she has developed serious trust issues from those experiences. This makes connecting with others and developing friendships exceedingly difficult for her because she feels like everyone is going to harm her eventually. She has also experienced multiple traumas while seeking mental health treatment in the past. The culmination of all her experiences has also created some festering anger issues within her that she tries hard to keep under control. Then when she gets blue papered, involuntarily committed, to this dysfunctional psychiatric hospital, they keep pumping her with all sorts of different psychotropics, which makes it difficult to tell who the real Dory is and what is just the medication taking over her mind and what are just rumors from those around her.

These days, where many teachers and doctors and social workers want to label “unusual” behavior as something other, we all pretty much can say we have a “psychological disorder” of some kind: anxiety, depression, ADHD, oppositional defiant disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder, etc. That aspect of our society makes me feel like Dory is a relatable character for many people. Dory is an odd duck with some quirks others don’t understand, but people around her want to label every single “odd” action as some sort of mental disorder. Maybe she does have a disorder, maybe more than one, but does she really have all the disorders that she’s accused of having? Which disorders does she truly have, and which ones are misdiagnosed or simply assumed by people incapable of making such claims? This is all left up to the reader to figure out as they read the story and get to know Dory.

GMM: Mental illness is a familiar trope in horror fiction, but the idea of harvesting bone dust to be used as a form of drug is not. The harvesting really is a horrifying process, but you execute the imagery in a way that makes it almost beautiful. Enticing. Which is why I suppose there are willing “Donors”. Where did this nightmarish idea come from?

RSD: Well, your word choice—”nightmarish”—hits the nail right on the head. The idea was inspired by a nightmare of mine. Isn’t that where it all begins anyways—in our nightmares? That crazy group counseling session from chapter one that you heard me read, that is where the story began, the part pulled out of my nightmare, though it didn’t happen exactly that way in my dream; I changed it to fit the story and the characters.

In my dream, I was at a First Friday Artwalk in Portland, Maine with a close friend of mine. She asked if I’d mind if we made a quick stop to see one of her friends. She had told him she’d swing by while we were in the city, and she promised me it would only take a few minutes. I agreed. When we stopped to see him, we walked into a large open room that had a big group of people all gathered and sitting around on the floor in a circle. There was no furniture in this room. I had no idea what was going on or who any of the people were. I noticed that one man, an extremely skinny guy with a gapped-tooth grin and a large grotesque scar around his collarbone (He is now my Slug Man in the book.), was addressing the whole group. My friend and I stood off to the side and remained quiet. While we stood there, I was trying to figure out why they were all gathered here and what they were doing. As I looked all around the circle of people, I noticed that every person there was grotesquely scarred, all in different locations on their bodies. I thought they might all be cutters, or maybe they had all attempted suicide and that this was a counseling group for people in those situations/mindsets. Trying to figure this all out, I focused in on what that man was saying. That’s when I realized that this was an NA group for people who harvested bone dust and used it as a drug, like heroin. They harvested from themselves, as well as from others. I was mortified. I was even more mortified when I realized that the man speaking was the “friend” my friend was there to see. She knew these people, was friends with these people. That’s when another realization hit me—this friend of mine, someone I’d been close friends with for many, many years, all of a sudden seemed like a complete stranger to me. I woke up after that and I immediately knew that scene needed to go into a story. I started writing The Bone Cutters (titled Chiseled High back then) that same day.

Once I sat to write the story, I decided to change the setting and circumstances, and, of course, I changed the character who discovers this group of addicts from me to Dory. (She is not me, though there are aspects of Dory’s character that I can relate to.) I’d been wanting to write a dysfunctional psychiatric hospital story for quite some time, and I had made other attempts before—some of which are still works-in-progress—so I went with that setting, finding it very fitting for this situation. Also, I have a love for the unreliable narrator, so I thought it would be great to cast the main character as someone of questionable mental faculties and often under the influence of “questionable substances”, which is how Dory was born.

Also, where the whole crazy, villainous drug addict type of character came from: throughout my life I have known many drug addicts, some former friends, former partners, some family members, some simply acquaintances. Some of them I had long, close relationships with. Because of those relationships and experiences I had with them, I had once tried to write a novel, my first novel, with a main character who falls into heroin addiction. I tried my best to make her a sympathetic character, as I was simultaneously trying to sympathize with and understand the loved ones in my life who were struggling with lifelong drug addictions. That character in my book started out extremely sympathetic, but where many beta readers lost that sympathy was halfway through the book when she started using heroin and fucking up her life even more than it already was. That book and that character, along with what began happening in my life with those close to me who were abusing drugs, made me realize I was not writing the right story or the right character for me. (I guess you could say that my beta readers lost their sympathy for my fictional drug addict character in my novel, just as I lost my sympathy for the real drug addicts in my life.)

The Bone Cutters goes much, much darker than my first novel, showing just how far certain addicts, like the ones I had once been close to in my real life, will go to get their fix. They hurt themselves. They hurt others. They’re sneaky. They’re manipulative. They lie about everything. And the depths to which they’ll stoop to get what they want or need is lower than low. No, not all addicts are the same, but I am a firm believer that there are many addicts who cannot be saved. No matter how much help they get, no matter how much support they have, they never stop using, they never stop their harmful and destructive behavior. I may get some hate mail for saying that, but it’s the truth; I know addicts like that. The ones that never change. To the people in their lives who aren’t users, it appears as though they enjoy the life of drug addiction, they enjoy all that goes along with the drug addict lifestyle. If they didn’t like it, wouldn’t they try to make changes? The Bone Cutters takes this idea and puts a dark spin on the why of this type of drug addict. Why can’t they stop using? Even when they have all the support and all the resources to help them get clean—why do they not stop? What makes them keep using? What makes them keep hurting themselves and others? What makes them keep destroying their life? What is their motivation? What is it pushing them to go that low with their behavior? This is where my horror-brain kicks in.

No, my book is not all about looking down on drug addicts and making them the bad guys, the villains, the monsters. It’s not like that at all, as readers will realize when they get to the ending (or maybe I should say the “non-ending”, since there’s a sequel coming). I do also know addicts who have recovered and moved on to do amazing and wonderful things with their lives, ones that move on to have success and happiness in their work and personal lives, and I do include characters like that in my book as well. There are many, many wonderful people out there who recover from drug addiction. So, my story wouldn’t be a truthful look at drug addicts if I made the users all bad guys and lost causes.

Excerpt from the sequel to The Bone Cutters (The title of the book is withheld for now.)

Chapter 1: The Carver, The Collector, and The Stitcher

A cloth is secured in his mouth, knotted behind his head, to keep him from screaming. A blindfold stretches across his eyes. The white-hot sting of the blade slicing through the skin of his shin makes him grit his teeth.

Only a whimper escapes.

Buck knife in hand, The Carver gets down to the bone quickly. Twin serpent-like scars run up the outside of both of The Carver’s forearms. They writhe and pulse as he reaches out and swaps the knife for a chisel and mallet. Like a modern-day Michelangelo, he begins whittling away at the victim’s tibia, the bigger of the two shin bones. Serpent scars slither around while he works.

Every hit of the mallet sends a shaking jolt through the restrained man. The chair legs rattle against the tiled floor with every jostle. His ankles are zip-tied to the wooden chair legs. His wrists are zip-tied to each side of the back of the chair. Tears soak the blindfold and leak down his cheeks from underneath. Snot bubbles at his nostrils. Strands of his shaggy brown hair stick to his sweaty temples.

Rather than creating a work of art, The Carver extracts bone shavings to crush into dust at a later time. With the help of The Collector, who is beside him, curls of shaved bone are caught onto a sheet of tinfoil.       

The foil is filled fast.

From behind The Carver, someone with gnarly scarred knuckles passes The Collector a second sheet of tin foil. The filled foil is switched with the empty.

The Carver reaches for a new tool. The chisel and mallet are swapped with a small utility knife.

Rapid shaving motions slide down the tibia over and over and over again.

More whimpering.

More chair rattling.

Sibling serpents shake and slither along with every movement of The Carver’s arms.

Bone dust is collected this time. The second batch is for immediate consumption.

Mixed with blood, the dust looks like sticky black tar heroin. Bone Cutters call it Dark Heaven or Red Sugar or simply Dust.

Deal done, The Stitcher steps out of the shadows, thread and needle held in grotesquely scarred hands, to seal the wound.

The victim is no longer whimpering.

The victim is no longer crying.

The victim is now passed out, head hung low, chin to chest. Whether from shock or blood loss is of no concern to The Carver or The Collector or The Stitcher.

All they’re here for is the Dust and the high that will come with it, as well as—

the money they’ll make off what they don’t smoke or inject themselves.

The Stitcher is thankful. Not just for the high-to-come and the money they’ll make—

It sure is easier to stitch the wound without all the shaking and blubbering that was going on a few moments ago.  The needle and thread zips back and forth through the flesh as smoothly as a whisper floating with the wind.  

Wound now sealed shut, it’s time to clear the scene. With two tips of the chair by The Collector and The Stitcher, The Carver carefully slides out the blood covered plastic tarp that is spread out underneath the victim and the chair. He rolls it up, preps it for disposal.

Then the zip-ties are snipped from the victim’s wrists and ankles and tucked securely into the tarp. Add in a few rocks from the park on the walk back to their den, and these Bone Cutters will send all remnants of this event down river.

All except the product and—

The buck knife.

The hilt of the knife is wiped clean. Then it’s placed in the victim’s hand, with his fingers wrapped around it, assuring only his prints are found.

The Carver, The Collector, and The Stitcher are good at covering their tracks. Maybe not the tracks in their skin or the scars that double as their own living entities (Those they wear with pride, like badges of honor.), but definitely the tracks of the assaults against all their unwilling victims.

Not all victims are unwilling.

Some enjoy the rush of the slice like a bite from a vampire.

The Donors.

Minions or Lackeys if you’re a non-dust-user.

Some might call them Renfields.

Many Bone Cutters (A.K.A. Dusters) also get a rush from the slice, but it does wear you down after a while. All that blood loss. All that pain. It’s much more satisfying and stimulating to inflict that pain on another. But when times get desperate—

they will again slice into themselves.

Scene all cleaned and sparkling, as though only the victim has been present, the three junkie-cutters vacate the premises. The tarp is rolled up tight and worn like a backpack by The Collector. After one last wipe of the outside doorknob, the three practically skip down the hallway and out onto the sidewalk, as giddy as children approaching an ice cream truck.    

While strolling away from the scene of the crime, as though nothing unusual has taken place, they hear the flutter of large wings overhead. The sound is moving towards the house they just left behind.     

They all look up, wondering if it’s what they think it is. A glimpse of huge, black wings zooming past the beam shining from the streetlight is confirmation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is my word for the year? CREATIVITY

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

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

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

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

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

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

What will your word be in 2020?

Anxiety is the New Black

About a year ago, I had a moment of clarity in which I realized that I have been suffering from anxiety since I was a child. What sparked this moment of personal insight? The fact that my son also suffers from anxiety and I began to think back on what life was like for me at his age. I’m sure that if you asked my friends and family, many of them would tell you that my childhood was good and they have many fond memories of me growing up. My memories aren’t always in line with theirs, and that’s okay as long as I’m allowed to remember things the way they happened for me through my perception of things.

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I was born in Central Pennsylvania in 1972. My mom is a white woman who grew up in a small rural community that wasn’t really thrilled about her dating choices and in many ways shunned her after she decided to marry my biological father. While living with my father’s family, a group of migrant workers living near Chambersburg, PA, my mother grew up fast. According to her, my father fancied himself a ladies man, which actually translates as pimp in the real world, and when she found out she was pregnant with me, two things occurred to her: 1) At least three other women were pregnant to my father at that time, and 2) Her unborn child deserved a better life. She told me that she sat in the dark waiting for him to come home and thought about killing him. Knowing she had to be around to take care of me changed her mind. So, she left him that night and filed for divorce soon after.

When I was born, we lived with my grandparents in the same small town where my mom grew up. To say that the town I grew up in lacked diversity is quite the understatement. Aside from my mom’s boyfriend, Gene, and his family, I don’t recall seeing other people of color, with the exception of people on TV, until I was about four or five and we moved to a larger town, Carlisle, PA.

Gene

Carlisle was and is segregated. People who have lived here their whole lives aren’t always conscious of that fact, but when you meet people who move here, it’s one of the first things they notice about the place. Have things changed since I was a child? Yes. But to be fair, one of the changes I would be happy to point to is the fact that when I was a child, people felt completely at ease driving by in their cars and shouting “nigger lover” at my mother while she walked with me downtown.  No one has called me a nigger to my face since I was in an undergraduate in college, but I know some people were thinking  it while they spoke to me. It’s like Spidey senses, but for racists.

So, while I was growing up I experienced a multi-layered effect of racism and bigotry from strangers, teachers, friends, and family. Apparently, this isn’t uncommon for mixed race kids. I haven’t interviewed people or sent out surveys, but I know I am not the only person in the world who had this experience.

What idiot called it a human skull instead of an anxiety cabin.

— Doth (@DothTheDoth) December 2, 2018

Thanks to a series of unfortunate events in my life, I recently spent a year (August 2017 – June 2018) employed but underpaid, and lacking health insurance. During that time, when my anxiety levels were astonishingly high, I couldn’t afford medication to help with my chronic depression and anxiety. I couldn’t afford to see a therapist. Hell, I could barely afford to pay my bills.

But, Michelle, why didn’t you apply for assistance?

I did. And, I was denied assistance even though I was making $15 an hour working for a temp agency after I left another job where the owners of the business couldn’t pay me. They still owe me money, but much like the child support I keep hoping for, I doubt if I’ll ever see it.

A few weeks ago, I tried to apply for assistance again, because even though I am working full-time and have health insurance, I’m only making $0.82 more than what I was making at the temp agency. I was also working part-time as an online writing tutor for $11 an hour. Because I had made an extra $60 during the month of February from my part-time job, my income was considered too high to receive any assistance.

Yep, America is definitely great again.

I was told by a very sympathetic caseworker that if I quit my part-time job, and got a psych evaluation for my autistic child, we might qualify for assistance. So, as long as I make less money and can prove that my child is mentally ill, I’m allowed to receive help.

No wonder my anxiety levels keep rising.

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The good news is that since I have health insurance again, I can take my medication. But, even though I have access to services like therapy, the co-pays are too high for me to afford even with insurance.

Where does that leave me? At the moment, I don’t have any good answers. I keep looking for higher-paying jobs, but I no longer have a reliable car. Transportation is an issue. Fortunately, I am able to share my mother’s car and have some mobility. But using her car to drive back and forth to work every week day isn’t an option. Especially since I would most likely have to drive to Harrisburg, Hershey, Lancaster, York, or elsewhere that would require anywhere from 30-60 minutes or more of travel time to and from work. So, I’m kind of stuck.

I try to appreciate what I do have while not focusing on what I don’t. Each day gets a little better, but I’m exhausted. Frustrated. Melancholy. Angry. I’m feeling a lot of feelings all the time.

Thoughts

But, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. I’ll share my good news with you later this week and you can help me celebrate brighter days ahead.

Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Life I Learned from InspiroBot

I’m not sure if you noticed, but there seems to be a surplus of inspirational platitudes out there to help us get through everything from bad break-ups to writers block to staying motivated while pursing our personal goals. Don’t believe me? Spend five minutes on Pinterest and let me know what you find. In fact, here’s the board I use to collect inspirational platitudes.

These tired, often recycled quotes that encourage us to keep our chins up and move forward, no matter how bad the reality of our situation might be, are for the most part well-meaning sentiments. However, if you’re a cynic like me, and have a dark sense of humor, or if you’ve simply been through some truly terrible experiences in life, traditional motivational quotes might piss you off. At the very least, they will inspire a need to mock them.

I’ve been going through some rough times lately. And, by lately, I mean for the past several years. As a divorced, middle-aged woman of color who is a single parent living paycheck to paycheck, I can attest to the fact that the struggle is real. This isn’t my first Everything is Going to Shit Rodeo. In fact, I have developed this uncanny ability to remain calm and keep moving forward in the face of every challenge that has come my way.

So far.

I have yet to curl up and die, but don’t assume that I’m a superwoman who doesn’t need anybody’s support to get through the tough times. That just isn’t true. I cry. I scream. I write.  I cry some more. And, I am blessed with an amazing network of people who want to see me succeed. Friends who want to help if they are able. Family who is always there for me. I’m not fighting these battles alone, but after a while, I get worn out from dealing with these challenges day in and day out. I’d like to be able to put down the plates spinning above my head without letting them shatter on the ground.

You may be asking yourself, “How does she cope?” To be honest, although my struggle is mainly the product of a lack of stability, I still have a roof over my head, enough money to pay most of my bills (my defaulted student loans not included), and as always, I have a back-up plan. Okay, one or two back-up plans.

There are people in this world, in this country, in my neighborhood, who are worse off than I am. Yes, I am struggling for stability, but I won’t have to go live on the street with my son, and I won’t have to do anything seriously demeaning to earn money. Like I said, I have a back-up plan.

As you might imagine, people who want to see me succeed have lots of kind words of support and encouragement, and yes, even platitudes. Again, all given with good intentions. And, I believe that people are sincere when they offer their words of support. But, the darker side of me, my cynical self, needs humor to deal with the struggle. Because, let’s face it, if I’m not laughing, I’m more likely to start shouting obscenities at people which only makes matters worse.

My taste in humor runs from absurdist to gallows. For example, last year around this time I was watching Twin Peaks: The Return and one of the funniest scenes in the series that made me literally laugh out loud, was in episode 11, in which Gordon Cole (David Lynch) makes the following assessment while staring at a man whose head exploded without explanation, leaving only the bottom half of his face: “He’s dead.” I replayed the scene three times and laughed over and over. Sometimes, gaping head wounds can be hilarious. In my opinion, overstatement of the obvious, especially in the context of the finality of death, can be extremely funny.

Around the same time last year, a good friend of mine introduced me to the AI inspirational meme generator, InspiroBot. Initially, I just laughed at the random  inappropriateness of the memes. But then I realized that this alternative to insipid, empty platitudes about finding happiness in the worst of times, was exactly what I needed in my life. In fact, I’ve been playing with InspiroBot almost every day since I became aware of it. And, I’m not the only one who’s enjoying the nearly Dadaist memes that range from the absurd to the eerily thought provoking to basic common sense. InspiroBot introduces itself like so:

I’m InspiroBot.
I am an artificial intelligence dedicated to generating unlimited amounts of unique inspirational quotes for endless enrichment of pointless human existence.

So far, InspiroBot has brought me hours of enjoyment, stimulated my own creativity, and reminded me that laughing at things that make most people uncomfortable is actually soothing to me. The memes it generates are funny enough, but the interface is also humorous in a scary science fiction sort of way. It reminds me of AI in films, like Hal 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Skynet Corporation from the Terminator franchise, and David 8 from Alien: Prometheus and Alien: Covenant. The darkly humorous interface inspired Michael Walsh to write an article about InspiroBot suffering from an existential crisis for The Nerdist.

I don’t know if InspiroCorp©™® will be the catalyst for the destruction of humankind, but while I’m waiting to find out, I’m learning lots of interesting things from InspiroBot. As an agnostic who continues to search for meaning in the Universe, I’m open to finding meaning in places that might not make sense to others. At the moment, InspiroBot is one of my preferred forms of meditation. If meditation can be compared to a slot machine that generates bizarre Jungian Stream of Consciousness platitudes that either enlighten or confuse. Even if the path ahead for me isn’t clear, it’s clear to me that InspiroBot wants me to look at things differently. Here are five examples of wisdom I’ve gleaned from the AI meme generator.

Number 1: InspiroBot reminds us that our fear of dying alone may be the primary force that drives us to seek out romantic relationships. Marriage is the logical conclusion for most people who find love in this life, much like death is the logical conclusion to life itself.

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Number 2: Sometimes, you need to start with a clean slate. Which means, you need to learn how to not only accept the fact of change, but embrace it. Starting over can be scary, but it is often necessary to move forward to the next phase of your life. Whether that means quitting a job you hate, leaving a relationship that is sucking the life out of you, or literally setting something you’ve created on fire, like a short story or a painting, so you can begin again with a fresh perspective.

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Number 3: It’s okay to be weird. Being weird, especially in the company of fellow weirdoes can be an intense mood elevator. Getting together with like-minded people, whether they’re horror writers, furries, or goths, can really lift your spirits and remind you that you’re not alone in the world, and more importantly, you aren’t completely crazy. Unfurl your freak flag!

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Number 4: Life lessons aren’t always happy occasions. In fact, I often believe that the more traumatic the lesson, the greater the learning opportunity. People like to tell us to “move on,” or “suck it up,” or “get over it.” Bullshit. Embrace your bad times and learn from them so that you don’t have to repeat them in the future. In the words of Oscar Wilde, “Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.”

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Number 5: The previous meme reminds us that we can learn from our mistakes. One of life’s lessons I have to keep relearning is to not chase after people who do not have my best interest in mind. I have a terrible habit of finding myself attracted to people who will most likely cause me harm. I mean, honestly, my love of monsters relates to both fictional characters and literal people from my past. The idea of seeking out a partner who will either consciously or unconsciously hurt you due to who they are, their life choices, or a history of bad behavior in romantic relationships is almost always a bad idea. Breaking this habit is an ongoing project for me. At least when it comes to real people. My love of fictional monsters will probably never go away. Vampires, werewolves, and Lucifer just do it for me.

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Inspiration can come from unexpected sources. Some people seek enlightenment through religion, others seeks answers in Nature. For now, my answers come from InspiroBot. Laugh if you must, but don’t knock it until you try it.

When Survival Mode Becomes a Way of Life

It’s easy to recognize when a period of transition begins, but how do you know when it ends? Are there concrete, measurable ways to know you’ve come out on the other side and accomplished what you set out to do? Or is there just a constant sense of unease over never truly recognizing you have simply stepped into a new phase of existence? If you began following a path with no real sense of what you expected to find on the other side, how would you know if you reached your destination?

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Image via Unsplash by Kelly Sikkema

For the past six years, I have been in a seemingly never-ending period of transformation. I have celebrated successes, mourned losses, floated around aimlessly trying to figure out what happens next, and have continued to set personal and professional goals for myself in the face of adversity. I keep expecting things to settle down and become more manageable, but honestly, I think I’m kidding myself. I’m beginning to think this is just my life, and good, bad, or ugly, I’m living it.

2012 was a busy year. In February that year, I celebrated my 40th birthday with three good friends in New Orleans: my cousin Tara, my best friend’s sister, Katie, and my friend Christina, who flew all the way from Amsterdam to celebrate my birthday. The four of us met up in the Crescent City, a magical place I believe to be my birthplace in a past life, and quickly eased into a long weekend of drinking, eating, laughing and dancing. Highlights from that weekend include:

  • Shopping at Trashy Diva
  • Eating beignets past midnight at Café du Monde
  • Getting my photo taken with a demon on Bourbon Street
  • Laughing so hard at inappropriate jokes that my sides hurt
  • Watching a Mardi Gras parade in the Garden District with floats from a Krewe in Lake Pontchartrain who wore creepy old-fashioned Mardi Gras masks
  • Getting a birthday spanking by a stranger in a bar on Decatur Street
  • Watching a man in his 70’s perform kickass R&B for a solid hour straight in a Mardi Gras Indian costume down on Frenchman Street
  • Spending time with women I love and respect

I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun. That was a magical weekend I hope to recreate in the very near future.

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Café du Monde New Orleans

Soon after that trip, several life-changing events happened. Events I had speculated about while on that magical trip. First, I was accepted to the MFA in Writing Popular Fiction Program at Seton Hill University, and I began the three-year MFA in June that year. For years, I had struggled with the notion of taking myself seriously as a writer. I had been writing fiction fairly consistently since I turned 12, and then I completed a BA and MA in English in the hopes of finding a career in writing or teaching, but neither of those things happened. Why? Well, that’s a story for another day. The point is, reading, writing, and writing about writing were some of my favorite things to do and yet somehow I wasn’t making a living doing those things.

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Image via Unsplash by Ali Yahya

A few months before my 40th birthday, I decided it was time to take myself seriously and finally write a novel. And, hey, why not earn another college degree while I was at it? That was probably one of the best decisions I ever made. During my second residency, in January of 2013, I decided to end my marriage. I sat up late one night with my good friend and fellow writer, and she and I brainstormed an exit strategy. After that weekend, I applied for a job at my alma mater, and contacted a lawyer friend about the process of getting divorced. Shortly after telling my husband I was leaving, my brother-in-law died. The key to comedy, and apparently tragedy, is timing. One of these days, I’m going to write about that experience: the sadness, the guilt, and the inexplicably delightful black comedy of the whole thing that still fills me with a sense of awe over how bizarre life can be.

Anyway, by April of 2013 I had a new job and had moved back to my hometown. I left a job that was killing my spirit and a marriage that was making me unbearably unhappy, I started a new job, became a single parent, and faced the realities of my father’s rapidly declining health. My mother had recently put my dad in a nursing home because she couldn’t leave him alone at home while she worked. He had developed dementia after fighting several life-threatening illnesses that honestly, he probably shouldn’t have survived. For years, he had battled diabetes, pulmonary hypertension, and levels of stress I can only imagine. Well, to be fair, my own current levels of stress are probably slowly killing me. By some unbelievable twist of fate, my dad received a heart transplant. I’m not sure that was best thing that could have happened. He really wasn’t healthy enough for the surgery, and after the transplant he slowly went crazy, nearly taking my mother with him in the process.

Not only did he become difficult to talk to–because he developed a pathological need to be right about everything–but he forgot to pay bills and drained my parents’ bank account buying books and online services for an imaginary business he believed he had started. My father had spent his adult life working hard to keep people with mental illness tethered to reality, yet at the end of his own life, there was no one to help him keep madness at bay. One day, my mom got a call at work from the police. They had found my dad wandering around a few blocks from home and he had no idea where her was. His hallucinations, unpredictable mood swings, and strange changes in personality were difficult enough to deal with, but after the police brought him home, she put him in a nearby nursing home to keep him safe.

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Image via Unsplash by rawpixel

After moving back to my hometown in March 2013, my son and I lived with my mom for a few months. She had the space and wanted the company. I wanted to save money and needed a safe space to deal with all the changes I was making. We gave each other support in a challenging time. She helped me look after my son, and I helped her deal with the things she didn’t want to face about my dad. There was paperwork, visits to the nursing home, and just accepting the fact that dad was never coming home. She felt guilty for leaving him there, but neither of us could quit our jobs to look after him.

At the same time, I was dealing with financial struggles that followed me from my marriage, an undiagnosed mental health issue with my then 6-year-old, anxiety over starting a new job, anxiety about starting a new job at my alma mater that I vowed to burn to the ground and salt the earth when I had left it, anxiety about being a single parent, anxiety about being single in my 40s, anxiety about what the hell I was going to do with the rest of my life, anxiety about how to finish writing a novel so I could graduate from my MFA program…well, you get the idea. Most days, I was just amazed I got out of bed and made it to work without driving into oncoming traffic. Somehow, I was still functioning as an adult.

I dealt with my emotional and psychological discord by crying a lot. In fact, crying while driving to work was part of my daily routine for a while. I wrote. I went for walks. I talked to friends. I lost myself in social media. I watched Hannibal religiously. I took short trips on the weekends, sometimes alone and sometimes with my son. I went to work, built good working relationships with my co-workers, and began accomplishing career goals. Oh, and I finished writing a novel and earned my MFA.

I also tried online dating after being “off-the-market” for more than 10 years. Dating in my 40s while dealing with nearly crippling anxiety, and battling a lifetime of poor body image and excruciating self-doubt was no small task. I amazed my friends by going on date after date after date with a laundry list of strangers. Some of the strangers were interesting, some boring, some confusing, some I liked, some I didn’t understand, and one was so psychologically damaging that I had to seek out a therapist to leave him. After my second session with her, she told me I was suffering from a mild case of Stockholm Syndrome, and that I was participating in a very dangerous relationship with a narcissist with borderline personality disorder.

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Image via Unsplash by Nicolas Picard

When she told me that, I actually breathed a sigh of relief because I thought the reason why that relationship wasn’t working was my fault. I have a complete set of steamer trunks full of issues that stem from my inability to trust people. I am no stranger to betrayal, and because I think my earliest betrayals occurred at home at a very impressionable age, as an adult, I have simply come to expect betrayal as a given. In fact, sometimes I think I actually court it. Consciously or unconsciously, I seek out relationships with people I know will eventually disappointment me. I open myself up to people who see me for what I am: a safe, warm place to rest while they put their own pieces back together. Once they figure their own issues out, they move on or continue to abuse my kindness until I say enough is enough.

I’m tired of living like that. I’m tired of building walls to protect myself from the thing I want the most: love. But not just any kind of love. I want respectful, reliable, unconditional love. Love that takes work on the part of both people involved. Love that’s worth fighting for. Love that comforts me and puts my fears to rest, or at least makes them more manageable.

My anxiety has been very active lately. But to be fair, the reasons why are no mystery. I have been consistently underemployed for the past several years. I went from living paycheck to paycheck with the saving grace of health benefits, to living without paychecks and no health insurance, to living from considerably smaller paycheck to paycheck with no health insurance. That’s where I’m at right now. In the midst of a financial crisis, trying to figure out how to get a better job, better pay, dig myself out of debt, and rebuild my credit rating. Those are all valid concerns for a single parent with unpaid bills and a late rent payment hanging over her head.

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Image via Unsplash by John Baker

You would think that would be enough to worry about, right? But, thanks to the magical gift of anxiety, I’m also worried about being a good person. Or rather, being good enough. Am I attractive enough to be appealing to potential sexual partners? Will I ever meet someone I’d like to build a life with? Am I talented enough to keep writing? Will I ever have a job that pays me enough to not only get out of debt, but also buy a house and go on vacations? Will I ever trust myself enough to dismantle the walls I’ve built to keep myself safe?

These are the questions that keep my from falling asleep at night. The fears that drive me to binge eat, skip going to the gym, and stop writing for weeks at a time. My pattern of bad habits often leads me to fantasize about a self-fulfilling prophecy that ends with me dying alone surrounded by empty bourbon bottles, ice cream containers, and the pages of an unfinished novel or memoir.

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Image via Unsplash by David Zawila

I don’t have a crystal ball. I don’t know what happens next. What I do know is that I am in charge of creating my future. Or, at the very least, I am in charge of making better choices so that my future is a bit brighter. All I’m really hoping for is a better job, stable pay, and access to health insurance so that my mental health needs are met through medication and therapy. I’m not asking for a lot. And, I haven’t given up hope yet either. I believe things will get better. They usually do. I’ll be sure to let you know how things turn out, so stay tuned.

When Life Gives You Lemons, Daydream About Psychotic Vampires

I don’t know about you, but Life has been kicking my ass lately. Due to some issues with my employment over the past several months, I had to start working for a temp agency to earn some money in order to dig myself out of a huge financial hole. Back in August of last year I walked away from a job after realizing that despite all my hard work and effort, I was never going to be seen as a peer or equal by the people who literally rewrote the job description I wrote for my position so that I would no longer qualify for the job I had been doing for 4 years. So, I cobbled together what little dignity I had to spare, and left.

Then I started working for a small company that was struggling financially, which meant that I was struggling financially. I liked the work and the people, but I had to borrow money and pull money out of savings in order to scrape by. I’m behind on all my bills, and I am often crippled with worry about the future.

I was invited to present a paper about vampires at an academic conference in Romania this summer that I had to pull out of, because I couldn’t afford the trip. I’m still a little broken-hearted over the fact that I can’t go, because it was a dream come true. Well, maybe next year.

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On the bright side, I sold a short story and picked up some freelance work writing web content, and I have some amazingly supportive friends and loving family in my corner. Even if they can’t bail me out of debt, they cheer me up and remind me that life isn’t just about collecting a paycheck. Although, paychecks are obviously necessary and I can’t live without them.

This morning on my way to work, a piece of gravel flew up off the road and cracked my windshield. Now I have to figure out the how the hell I’m going to pay to have it repaired, come up with the money for my son to go to summer camp, and oh yeah, pay my rent.

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I am a 46-year-old, divorced woman of color with three college degrees and lots of valuable work experience. I go on interviews every few months in the hopes of finding a better job, but nothing seems to pan out. I spoke to a woman yesterday on the phone about a job, and she said she was worried that I was overqualified. I explained that I’m a single mom. I’m raising my child alone with no child support. I need a job to survive and I’m looking for a stable position where I get to do work I enjoy. Oddly enough, that seemed like a novel idea to her, as if there were jobs falling out of the sky and I had my pick. We’ll see if I pass the personality test she sent me as part of the interview process. That’s right. I took an online personality test today to see if my personality, not just my education and years of experience are a good match for a job I’m overqualified for. Isn’t Life a scream?

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On top of the fact that I’m in non-stop survival mode, I’ve hit my sexual peak and haven’t dated anyone in over a year because I’m not interested in meaningless hookups. To be fair, I’m not exactly in an ideal phase of my life to attract worthy partners. By worthy, I mean single, attractive, kind, interesting, educated, financially stable men with a dark sense of humor who can laugh at themselves and make me laugh, who didn’t vote for Trump, and aren’t members of the NRA. Too specific? I don’t think so. Actually, if you think you meet these qualifications, I’ll be accepting applications later this month. Just kidding. Sort of.

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Sure, I have pleasant flirtations with friends on social media, but again I haven’t been on an actual date since early last year. Psychologically, I’m not sure I’d be very good company some days, but my friends keep telling me I’m a great catch. Whatever. My plate is kind of full with raising my ASD kid, dealing with my own issues of anxiety and depression, while trying to figure out how the hell I’m supposed to pay for everything. All while trying to work full-time and build a writing career.

Writing is one of the most important and soothing activities in my life. Before I ever even considered publishing my work, I wrote because I wanted to, needed to. Most of my life, I have dealt with times of crisis by finding solace in fiction. I read, I watch films and TV, and I write. Some people might tell you I hide in fiction. Screw them. They aren’t my friends. Fiction is a balm that allows me to escape from reality, and right now, mine is a non-stop shit show.

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Some people enjoy watching sports and reality TV shows, or reading romance novels with happily-ever-afters. Unless there are monsters or other supernatural or magically gifted characters involved, I’m not interested in watching. Don’t get me wrong. I love romance, but I like the paranormal variety, where crazy women fall in love with vampires, werewolves and demons. If you’ve read any of my other blog posts, you know that I absolutely love monsters. Vampires are my favorite monsters, and have been since before I was a teenager. I like complicated characters who are a bit more villain than hero who have faced such great tragedy that they go a little crazy. So, naturally, insane vampires are at the top of my list when it comes to being entertained.

One of the craziest and most entertaining vampires ever is Franklin Mott. Over the weekend, I treated myself by watching all of the True Blood episodes Franklin appears in, so I could laugh, get creeped out, and forget about my troubles for a few hours. I indulged my love of monster soap operas and reminded myself that things could be much worse. I could be tied to a toilet in a cheap motel while being held against my will by an insane vampire who thinks he’s in love with me. Wait. Actually, that sounds like a fun weekend.

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Franklin Mott is a Grade-A psycho. We’re first introduced to Franklin, played by British actor James Frain, in episode two of the third season of True Blood, “Beautifully Broken,” in which Lafayette Reynolds prevents his cousin, Tara Thornton, from committing suicide while mourning the death of her murderous boyfriend, Eggs. Tara is not only mourning the death of her boyfriend, but the fact that the happiest she ever felt in her life was when she was being psychically controlled by a maenad. She compares the experience of being head-over-heels in love with Eggs to being a zombie. That complete lack of control scares her and further challenges her belief in the existence of true love, or at the very least, her belief that she might not be worthy of receiving it.

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Tara hasn’t had a lot of luck in the romance department, and she’s beginning to wonder if the problem is her. So, the fact that the next man she attracts is an exceptionally violent vampire, does little to boost her self-image.

Franklin comes to Bon Temps to gather intelligence on Bill Compton for the Vampire King of Mississippi, Russell Edgington, and learn more about his human companion, Sookie Stackhouse. After finding a secret dossier on Sookie hidden in Bill’s office, and disposing of a dead body Jessica has stashed in the cellar, Franklin goes in search of a little R&R at Bon Temps’ hottest night spot, Merlotte’s.

It’s Tara’s night off, but Lafayette wants to keep an eye on her after her suicide attempt. She’s feeling pretty low, but pitches in behind the bar. When Franklin asks how she’s doing, she tells him she’s trying not to kill herself. He jokingly asks how that’s going for her. She says, “I’m still alive.” He says, “That makes one of us.” Tara then gets up and offers him a bottle of True Blood.

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Later in the episode, we see Tara sitting in the parking lot behind the bar drinking Wild Turkey straight from the bottle. Two drunk rednecks stumble out the backdoor, talking shit about Eggs in less than flattering terms, and one of them takes a piss on the spot where he was shot to death. Tara confronts them and things escalate quickly. She gets into a fist fight, but is outmatched until Franklin suddenly comes to her rescue. He helps out by holding one of the men so Tara can continue punching him, releasing some of her rage and grief. While Franklin holds the man and Tara hits him, Franklin’s fangs pop out, clearly turned on by Tara’s bloodlust.

The next time we see Tara and Franklin, they’re in bed together in a cheap motel. Tara has never had sex with a vampire and the experience is eyeball-rollingly orgasmic for both of them. In the midst of the encounter, Tara tells Franklin to bite her, but he refuses. Confused, she asks why. He tells her it’s because she asked him to, and his tone is teasing, playful.

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They continue to have sex until dawn, and Franklin seems to have taken a liking to Tara. He asks her questions about herself wanting to get to know her. Curious as to where all her rage comes from. At this point, he doesn’t even know her name. Unwilling to develop any sort of attachment, Tara gets dressed and tells him she isn’t interested in forming any kind of lasting bond with him. And you get the sense that his feelings might be a little hurt when she leaves.

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Still on assignment for the Vampire King of Mississippi, Franklin continues to follow leads to gather more intel on Bill and learn more about Sookie. He tracks down Bill’s progeny, Jessica, and lets her know that he’s the one who disposed of the body she was hiding. Then he proceeds to grill her for information. In the process of learning more about Bill and Sookie, he also learns that Tara is staying at Sookie’s while she’s off trying to find Bill. Bill was kidnapped by Russell Edgington and is being held captive in Mississippi. Against his better judgment, Eric provides Sookie with a werewolf bodyguard, Alcide Herveaux, who accompanies her to Mississippi.

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Franklin shows up at Sookie’s and Tara is shocked to see him. She refuses to let him come in until he mesmerizes her and bends her to his will. She invites him in and he asks her questions about Bill and Sookie and discovers that Sookie is in Mississippi looking for Bill. Franklin then proceeds to kidnap Tara, claiming that he loves her and wants them to be together. Apparently, whether she likes it or not. This is when we begin to see just how crazy Franklin really is. We get a glimpse of his possessive, controlling nature when he tells Tara that if she keeps smiling while talking about Jason Stackhouse, he might have to get jealous.

Franklin begins exhibiting some of the classic signs of stalker/abuser behavior. He believes that if he has feelings for Tara, she should have feelings for him. It’s okay if she doesn’t right away, because he’s going to convince her that they’re meant to be together. Even if he has to resort to violence. For instance, he bounds and gags Tara in the bathroom of the cheap motel where they had what she believed was their one-night stand. When the sun goes down, Franklin shows up with flowers that he duct tapes to Tara’s bound hands before putting her in his car.

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When she demands to know where he’s taking her, because she views his actions as kidnapping, he acts offended and tells her she’ll ruin the surprise. She’s angry, confused, and terrified. Again, we get the sense that her refusal to simply enjoy the ride hurts his feelings. He imagines a relationship developing between them that is obviously one-sided.

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At one point, Tara demands to know why he keeps her tied up if he has feelings for her, and he tells her it is for her safety. He gets upset and nearly breaks down crying, because again, his feelings are hurt by her implication that he is keeping her tied up to hurt her, not protect her. His behavior becomes more erratic and confusing the more time she spends in his company. However, Tara is a pro at dealing with abusers, and soon learns how best to manipulate Franklin to protect herself and convince him to do what she wants.

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If she shows signs of being upset, he asks who made her feel that way and threatens to kill them. He apologizes for not taking better care of her when he forgets that she needs to eat regular food. He brings her gifts and tries to make her comfortable. Then, he goes a step too far and proposes to her. She obviously can’t say no, but has no desire to become a vampire. If they are wed, he plans to change her so they can be together forever. One of the obvious drawbacks of falling in love with a vampire, or becoming a vampire’s object of desire, is that in order for any long-term love affair to occur, you have to become like them.

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He loves her so much, he wants to kill her. She doesn’t want to die. In fact, she’s horrified by the thought, which is ironic given the fact that she tried to kill herself at the beginning of the episode in which they met. But, I guess the message here is that she wants to die on her own terms. She wants her death to be her own decision. She wants to be in control of her life and death, not at the mercy of a psychotic, love-sick vampire. Beyond that, Tara also realizes that just because someone desires you, that doesn’t mean they have the right to own you. And, Franklin Mott’s version of love entails ownership.

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While watching the episode in which he offers her what amounts to an eternity of slavery to her bloodlust, it wasn’t lost on me that the setting was an old plantation house in the deep South. Tara is essentially a house slave at the mercy of her owner’s desires. Franklin is not her lover, he’s her master. She’s held against her will and forced to endure his poisonous version of affection. Of course, if you tried to explain this concept to Franklin, he’d probably be so offended that he’d black out in a murderous rage and wake up in a room surrounded by body parts.

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Despite his dangerous flaws, Franklin Mott is an interesting character. He has some of the funniest and most memorable lines in season three. His gallows humor, intelligence, biting sarcasm, and taste in mostly all black clothing make him charming and oddly attractive. Something broke inside Franklin long before he became a vampire. There was darkness in him prior to becoming one of the undead. However, even if he wasn’t a vampire, his attraction to vulnerable women who have essentially given up on life makes him a predator.

As fictional characters go, Franklin Mott is right up my alley, but I wouldn’t want to meet someone like him in the real world.

The Safe Word is Chicks Dig Scars

You may have noticed, while browsing through my blog posts that I have a thing for vampires. I’ve spent a lot of time reading, writing, watching, and thinking about vampires. Hell, they even show up in my dreams sometimes. If I’m lucky, the alarm clock doesn’t interrupt the really good parts of the dreams.

A few days ago I wrote about Jean-Claude, Vampire Master of the City of St. Louis, who appears in the Anita Blake novels by Laurell K. Hamilton. Jean-Claude is one of my favorite vampires of all time, and he has quite a bit of competition given the fact that I’ve been obsessed with vampires since I was 12. When I first read the Anita Blake novels, I only had eyes for Jean-Claude and Richard Zeeman. Werewolves are hot, too, but with each book, I like Richard less and less. He’s a self-centered, self-loathing, mentally unstable, jealous asshole who refuses to accept his own reality. By clinging onto his fantasy world, he repeatedly puts the people who rely on him in danger. And, despite the fact that he is a super hot piece of ass, his sexual proclivities make me uncomfortable and lead me to believe that the few times he’s been accused of rape may not be that far-fetched. Sure, vampires are predators as well, but for the most part, they acknowledge their shortcomings and try not to lie about them too much.

I just finished the fifteenth novel in the series, The Harlequin, and after reading this book and the one before it, Danse Macabre, I’ve come to the conclusion that Asher is also one of my favorite vampires. To be fair, Asher is dangerous. He is a monster. He, like Jean-Claude, is part of Belle Morte’s bloodline and therefore his “talents” and powers are connected to love and sex. In fact, Asher’s bite causes people to experience the most intense orgasm of their lives, which makes him a very dangerous bedfellow.

The Safe Word is Chicks Dig Scars: Asher

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Asher’s backstory is interesting. When we are first introduced to him in Burnt Offerings, he has come to St. Louis with a group of vampires who wish to depose Jean-Claude. Asher is seeking revenge, because he blames Jean-Claude for the death of a woman they both loved, Asher’s human servant, Julianna. Julianna was burned at the stake as a witch and Asher was badly scarred because members of the Church attempted to exorcise his “demons” by pouring holy water over his face and body repeatedly. Holy water has the same effect on vampires as acid does on human skin. His striking beauty was forever marred by the scars he bears on the right side of his face and body. He blames Jean-Claude because he was too late in coming to save Asher and Julianna. Jean-Claude blames himself and can never get over the guilt he feels for losing two people he loved. When he finally rescued Asher, he was too ugly to return to Belle Morte’s court without some serious convincing on Jean-Claude’s part. Although Asher and Jean-Claude had escaped before, they needed a place to go so Asher could heal. So, Jean-Claude traded his own freedom for 100 years in order for Asher to have a place to stay.

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Belle Morte treated Asher terribly during this time and refused to take him to her bed. She forced him to watch other vampires having sex with herself, with Jean-Claude, and never allowed him the satisfaction of release. Although Jean-Claude saved his life, Asher never forgave him for what happened to him and Julianna. But, that hasn’t stopped Jean-Claude from loving him.

Because of her close ties to Jean-Claude, Anita has access to his memories of Asher before his accident and has caught glimpses of the intimacy shared between Asher, Jean-Claude and Julianna. Afraid that Anita with think badly of him, Jean-Claude limits her access to his memories of the love and sex shared between himself and Asher. But these memories create a sense of love and longing within Anita toward Asher, and when he sees the way she looks at him, it raises his hopes that he can find the love he once had. Because of Jean-Claude’s memories, Anita sees beyond the scars and slowly falls in love with Asher. Asher has a really difficult time believing that anyone would want him because he is so scarred.

Despite the strong feelings Jean-Claude has for Asher, he avoids having a sexual relationship with him. Again, this is because he worries that Anita will reject him if he succumbs to his desires for other men. Even when Anita accepts Asher into their bed, there are rules about who touches who. The first night Asher is allowed in bed with Jean-Claude and Anita, it is only because of the need to feed the ardeur. Jason and Nathaniel are on either side of Anita, touching her to feed the ardeur, and Jean-Claude is feeding on Jason while Asher feeds on Nathaniel. Because there’s no actual intercourse, and despite the fact that everyone reaches orgasm, Anita discounts the experience as not being ACTUAL sex.

Take a moment to think about that. Anita is in bed with two smoking hot shapeshifters who are essentially naked, and bringing her to orgasm through digital manipulation. They’re both being fed on by vampires who bring about orgasm through their touch and bites, and drinking blood is akin to sex for most vampires. Everybody is getting off, but because no one is literally fucking her, it’s feeding, not sex. I’m pretty sure whatever was happening in that bed sounded, felt, and smelled like sex. But hey, what the hell do I know?

At any rate, the next time Asher ends up in bed with Jean-Claude and Anita, it’s because they are protecting Asher from being sent back to Belle Morte. Without that relationship, he isn’t romantically involved with anyone else, so his connection to the vampire kiss is tentative at best. Without belonging to someone, as someone’s lover, and the fact that his strength as a master vampire isn’t enough for him to be especially useful to Jean-Claude, he is at risk of being reclaimed by his maker. Although Anita and Jean-Claude have genuine feelings of love and lust for Asher, his own self-doubt and fear of rejection keeps him from believing that they really want him. It takes a lot of convincing for him to accept their invitation into bed, because he fears that once they have proven to Belle Morte that he is in a romantic relationship with them, they will no longer have a need to show him true affection.

When they finally coax him into bed, it is one of the hottest sex scenes in all of the novels. Anita is between the two vampires, riding Jean-Claude, and begging Asher to also penetrate her. His initial thought is anal, but Jean-Claude stops him for fear of hurting Anita. That’s one of the things she doesn’t do in bed, and her judgement is compromised by the ardeur. But she keeps telling him to penetrate her. So, he bites her, and rubs himself off against her ass. When his bite causes her to orgasm in tandem with the ardeur that she is sharing with Jean-Claude, all three of them climax over and over until both vampires die at dawn. Again, because Asher was not having intercourse with Anita, she still doesn’t count that as sex. Which confuses Asher and amuses Jean-Claude. They refer to Anita’s perspective as a very American view of sex.

There’s another memorable sex scene between Anita and Asher in Danse Macabre, in which Anita is feeding the ardeur and allows Asher to bite her so that they can have sex. Up to that point, he hadn’t fed, and without feeding, vampires can’t perform. No blood flow, no erection. Once again, Asher’s bite is orgasmic. Once he drinks enough blood to perform, he stops feeding. But Anita wants more. She asks him to bite her again, and because he is under the influence of the ardeur, he agrees. They fuck and he feeds and they fuck some more, until he nearly kills her. She wakes up in the hospital suffering from blood loss. Asher is so horrified by his own behavior that he simply assumes that she won’t want to touch him again. But she reassures him that she loves him even more.

Yeah, I know. That’s pretty fucked up. I mean, vampire sex is hot and all, but she essentially said it was okay that he almost killed her. Fucking him was so good that it was worth dying for. After that incident, however, Jean-Claude forbade them from being alone again. If they were going to keep having sex, they would need supervision. I don’t know about you, but if the sex is so dangerous that you need a chaperone, you might want to think twice about having sex with that person again.

Maybe. Of course, when your options for chaperones include Jean-Claude, Micah, Nathaniel, Jason, Damian, Requiem, Haven…well, you get the idea. Richard’s right out, because the only man he even considered sharing Anita with was Jean-Claude. And, while that sex scene ended up being extremely hot, they had to deal with a lot of Richard’s hang-ups before anyone could relax enough to enjoy the sex.

All kidding aside, the scene in which Asher nearly fucks Anita to death is only half as disturbing as the sex scene between Anita and Richard in The Harlequin, in which she sustains internal damage while having sex with Richard in the throes of the ardeur. We are told repeatedly that Richard is well-endowed. And, he’s a werewolf. So, he typically has to be very careful when he’s having sex with women who aren’t shapeshifters. He’s been accused of being a bit rough on more than one occasion. Anita tends to like rough sex, and her other lover, Micah also has a rather large penis. He tries to be careful, but he has injured her before as well.

In The Harlequin, Richard not only gets upset because Micah’s cock is as big as his, but that Micah has hurt Anita during intercourse. So, how does he deal with this? By hurting her worse than Micah ever would have allowed to happen. And, he enjoys hurting her. And, what’s worse is that Anita doesn’t stop him and then tries to comfort him when he feels bad about hurting her on purpose. She’s more worried about his feelings than her possible injuries. She allows herself to be the victim of sexual violence at the hands of a man who claims to love her, and then feels bad when his feelings are hurt. What the fuck? I’m not sure if Laurell K. Hamilton used these two acts of sexual violence as cautionary tales about why it isn’t safe to fuck monsters, or if she wanted us to think that sexual violence is hot. The fact that Anita allows these types of encounters to keep happening makes me think that we’re supposed to accept this behavior as par for the course when you decide to fuck monsters.

Rough sex is one thing, but writing female characters who nearly died because of it is irresponsible. Accepting pain as a natural outcome of intercourse is fucking insane. I’ll be the first to admit that monsters can be sexy, but only when what they do doesn’t endanger the lives of the people they claim to love. Especially when they fantasize about sexual violence the way Richard does. To have him behave like a monster is one thing, but to make us as readers feel bad for him is another. Up until the point that Anita green-lighted Asher to keep feeding from her, he asked her repeatedly if that’s what she really wanted and tried to talk her out of it before he would consent. Richard admitted that he wanted to try to hurt her, because it got him off. Asher is not a sexual sadist. Richard is. And yet, she tried to make him feel better about himself in order to keep the peace. I keep wondering if she’s shared this tidbit with Jean-Claude, because something tells me that of he knew how Richard treated Anita, he wouldn’t allow Richard to come near her again. At this point, that’s only speculation on my part.

Sexual violence is not sexy. Just because you write about monsters doesn’t mean the sex has to be absurdly violent. A vampire bite is one thing, but your female characters shouldn’t experience organ damage from overtly rough sex with a sexual sadist even if he is a werewolf.

At the end of The Harlequin, Anita is still worried about her relationship with Nathaniel and meeting his needs to be sexually dominated. Jean-Claude suggests that Asher teach Anita about BDSM so that she can satisfy Nathaniel’s unmet needs. I’m not gonna lie. The minute I was done reading The Harlequin, I requested Blood Noir from the library, with the hopes that Asher will not only instruct Anita in how to dominate Nathaniel, but he’ll actually demonstrate using Nathaniel as a prop. If I’m really lucky, Jean-Claude will “chaperone.”

What Dreams May Come

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The Nightmare, Henry Fuseli, 1781

“Dreams are today’s answers to tomorrow’s questions.” ~ Edgar Cayce

I have a recurring dream. You know the one. No, not the one about being naked in public. The other one. And no, it wasn’t the one about showing up to an exam after missing every class for the semester. It was definitely a stress-related dream, like the other two, but this particular dream is a recurring one that many of you may have had at least once in your life. On a regular basis, I have the teeth falling out of my mouth dream. I say dream, but you might say nightmare. Tom-A-to…tom-AH-to. If you had some of my nightmares, or had the teeth falling out dream as often as I have, you might not be as worked up about having it.

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Image by Yingpis Kalayom via Unsplash

I’ve had variations of this dream for as long as I can remember, and it usually occurs during high-stress periods of my life. Guess what? I’m stressed. And you probably are too. If you have a pulse and are not a chronically deluding yourself about how well you’re managing things in your life, then you are stressed.

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Image via American Psychological Association

The good news is, sometimes our subconscious mind speaks to us in dreams and let’s us know we aren’t completely alone in our struggle. We have our own instincts and internal compasses to guide us through. Since having my teeth fall out is a recurring theme in dreamland, I’ve come to appreciate this dream as a sign that there is something happening in my life that I need to address immediately. And, fortunately, it is usually something I have control over and can manage with the right course of action and attention to the problem. I don’t panic when I have this dream. Oddly enough, I am comforted by it, because when the dream arrives, it tells me that I am almost ready to deal with the situation that is causing me stress.

Great, but what do these dreams actually mean, and why should you be concerned about having them? Well, according to a website dedicated to this particular type of dream, the symbol of teeth have both positive and negative meanings in our dreams.

Negative Meanings

  • Insecurities, especially about a personal loss
  • Anxiety about sexual experience
  • A compromise that is costly to you
  • Life changes and “growing pains”
  • Fear of becoming older

Positive Meanings

  • Signs of personal expansion
  • Wish or need to nurture yourself more carefully
  • An invitation to explore feelings of loss and personal growth
  • A call to look at your support system
  • The Jungian interpretation: Times of renewal and “rebirth”

I checked a lot of boxes in both the negative and positive columns. How about you? Any of these fears feel familiar? Again, are you alive?

A few years ago I was having the teeth falling out dream almost weekly. Beyond the regular stress of daily life – work, family, finances, and relationships – I lost my father and was in the process of grieving his death. He battled with a variety of health issues over an eight-year period, and spent the last two and a half years suffering with dementia and becoming a stranger to my family and me. His death was, in many ways, anticlimactic simply because I had been grieving the loss of his personality for several years as he lost his memory, developed bizarre habits, and eventually could no longer take care of himself. When my mother and I took him to the nursing home, he asked us where we were going when it was time to leave. At that point, he still had enough understanding of who he was, who we were, and that his life was about to change dramatically. It was heart breaking, and we began grieving for him that day.

Even though I did a lot of grieving during that time, obviously, my father’s death had an impact on me and I still find myself missing him at strange moments. Like when I completed my first novel, a supernatural slave narrative, I wrote as my thesis for the MFA in Writing Popular Fiction Program at Seton Hill University. Writing that novel caused me to have the teeth falling out dream on numerous occasions, but when I finished it and found out that my thesis passed,  I was one step closer to graduating. Both accomplishments filled me with a new sense of confidence about myself as a writer and also reminded me that I can achieve bigger goals if I put in the time and effort. These happy achievements were slightly tarnished by the fact that my dad, the person who encouraged me the most to be a writer and pursue my creative interests, will never be able to read my book or share in the joy I felt on graduation day.

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Image by Melanie Wasser via Unsplash

Wait. What does this have to do with the teeth falling out dream? Oh right, I was illustrating an example(s) of the kind of stress that can trigger the teeth falling out dream. But, it doesn’t take the death of a parent to make life stressful. I’m a divorced single parent who works full-time and writes part-time and is looking for a fresh start – a new job, new place to live, and maybe even a chance at a new romance. Honestly? I manage a lot of my life very well, but there are always things I can take a step back from to examine with a bit more clarity. What do I want to do to pay the bills so I can follow my dream of becoming a full-time writer? Where do I want to live? What am I looking for in a partner? Do I even need a partner?

Typically, when I have the teeth falling out dream, a bunch of teeth fall out of my mouth, or I’m yanking them out as I discover that they’ve come loose. The last time I had the dream, only one tooth was loose. When I looked at myself in the mirror, it easily came free between my fingers, but it didn’t look human. It was too big, like a great big honking horse tooth. Apparently, there was one major issue I needed to address, but my unconscious mind was already working on solving the problem. Shortly after having the dream, I found a therapist and began working toward extracting the cause of the tooth dream. I’ve since moved forward and have been managing the stress in my life a lot better. Sometimes, removing what causes stress from our lives alleviates the need for pulling teeth.

Sweet dreams.

10 Things That Made Me Happy While Taking the #100HappyDays Challenge

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Back on January 23 I started a #100HappyDays Challenge. The homepage of the site asks you, “Can you be happy for 100 days in a row?” I believe most rational people would probably say no. And, if like me, you suffer from chronic depression you’d be even more skeptical.

The second question the site asks you is, “You don’t have time for this, right?” Again, most of us would agree that we don’t have time to make an effort to be happy every single day for 100 days. But is that true? Why don’t we have time? Is it because we don’t believe we’re worth the effort? Or is it because we don’t believe that you can find happiness that easily? Or maybe, and I know this sounds a little crazy, we don’t really understand a) what makes us happy, b) what happiness really looks and feels like, or c) how to begin to find happiness in our everyday lives.

The challenge itself is simple. Each day, for 100 days, you simply take a picture of something or someone who made you happy and then follow the steps on the site.

So first you register in the challenge >here<, then choose your favorite platform for submitting pictures. Here you can decide yourself on the privacy of your participation & happy moments:

  • Share your picture via Facebook, twitter or Instagram with a public hashtag #100happydays;
  • Come up with your own hashtag to share your pictures with to limit publicity. (Don’t forget to tell us how to find your pictures though)
  • Simply send your pictures to myhappyday (at) 100happydays.com to avoid any publicity.

The 100happydays.com site claims that “71% of people tried to complete this challenge, but failed quoting lack of time as the main reason.” Studies have shown that most people are not just busy, but overwhelmed with responsibility – work, housework, school, family, and other social obligations – that keep them running nonstop and afford little time for anything else. People typically don’t make time to take care of themselves, or just check in to see how happy they are with the life they are living.

Believe me, I get it. I’m a divorced single parent who works full-time. I’m a part-time writer trying to become a full-time writer, which means I write fiction in the hopes of being published and farm myself out for freelance projects because my day job doesn’t pay enough. I’m not currently dating, but I have a fairly active social life. I rent, so I don’t have a lot of home repairs to tend to, but there’s still housework, errands, cooking, and child rearing. To be honest, housework doesn’t get done very often, but we always have clean laundry and dishes, and my son never misses a meal. My son is involved in activities outside the house, and he has behavioral/emotional issues that we manage through therapy and other strategies. I’m not going to win any awards for my parenting skills. However, I make a point of showing up and being present when my energy and own mental health issues are balanced. I’m actively seeking employment, because I’m not sure if I’ll be able to stay in my current job after June. So, yeah, I’m busy. Like mind-numbingly, soul-crushingly busy some days. Depression has been an ongoing issue for me since I was a kid. I was diagnosed in my teens and have sought the support of therapists and medication on and off throughout my adult life. I’m not just busy. Some days are harder than others. Some days I have #zerofuckstogive. Some days I consider it a win if I get out of bed, get dressed, and make it to work.

Despite all the challenges I face day-to-day, I managed to find something to be relatively happy about for almost every single day of the 100-day challenge. I chose to post my pictures, thoughts and reflections on social media – Facebook and Instagram. Each day, beginning on January 23 and ending on May 2, I posted a photo, a meme, or simply an observation about that day and what brought me joy.

100happydays.com also asks the question, “Why would I do that?” Good question. I’m sure lots of people would ask that question. Well, here are some answers.

People successfully completing the challenge claimed to:

  • Start noticing what makes them happy every day;
  • Be in a better mood every day;
  • Start receiving more compliments from other people;
  • Realize how lucky they are to have the life they have;
  • Become more optimistic;
  • Fall in love during the challenge.

Need help figuring out what makes you happy? Here are the top 10 things that brought me happiness during my #100happydays challenge (in no particular order). Perhaps, you’ll recognize some of the things that make you smile too.

  1. Booze. Let’s face it, adult beverages are delicious and when they are drunk responsibly, they can have amazingly curative properties. When I was younger, I was hell-bent on self-medicating. I drank too much and too often. I also was careless about mixing drugs with alcohol, and usually in questionable company. That’s a story for another day. At this point in my life, I don’t drink very often. I keep some booze at home, typically bourbon, which is my favorite liquor. Occasionally, I’ll drink rum. Booze appeared in my social media feeds on Day 1 of the challenge. It was a rough day. And, booze played a role in bringing me happiness 4 out the 100 days, 5 if you count the codeine cough syrup I drank when I was sick. Fun fact: Because of my love of bourbon and booze in general, I gained roughly 20 new followers on Instagram who are either bars with specialty cocktails, bourbon aficionados, and distillers of small-batch spirits. So, I guess you could say that booze has the ability to make me popular and interesting.
  1. Coffee & Tea. I don’t know about you, but caffeine is 90% responsible for keeping me conscious most days. It’s no secret how much I love coffee, but I also enjoy drinking tea. Coffee and tea have been staples in my life since childhood. I grew up in rural Pennsylvania in the 70s and 80s, and my grandmother didn’t see a problem with putting iced tea in my bottle when I was a baby. I drank my first cup of coffee when I was five. But don’t worry, she cut the bitterness by adding a tooth-decaying amount of sugar to it. Essentially, my grandmother was my first drug dealer. She hated alcohol. Most likely because her father and one of her brothers were alcoholics. People who drank alcohol pissed her off, but she was the poster child for coffee, sugar, and cigarettes. When I was a poor college student and couldn’t afford to maintain my cigarette habit (I smoked between the ages of 14 and 35), my grandmother would either give me money or buy my cigarettes for me. By the carton. In fact, when I was a junior, studying abroad in England for a year, her biggest concern, aside from my safety, was that cigarettes were so much more expensive there. She sent me care packages on a regular basis, and I could always count on finding at least one carton of Camel Lights in the box of goodies. In a related story, after my first week of living in England, I discovered that I was getting headaches almost every day and was feeling lethargic even though I was drinking between 6 – 10 cups of tea a day. Eventually, I realized that I was suffering from dehydration. Basically, I lived on tea, beer and cider, scones with clotted cream, packets of cheese and onion crisps, and Camel Lights. Once I figured out what was wrong with me, I kept a plastic cup near my sink and I would drink 2 – 3 cups of water before going to bed and upon waking. By the way, I had purchased the cup with Camel Cash, and the cup featured an image of Joe the Camel wearing a leather biker jacket, circa early 90s.
  1. Food. I love food. I love to cook it. I love to eat. I see food as something beyond a means of nourishing my body. Food conjures memories of childhood. Food comforts me. Sharing a meal with family and friends is one of my favorite ways to interact and be social. Learning a new recipe is akin to learning a new spell. Food is a perfect marriage between magic and science. Cooking allows me to express myself, get creative, and heal myself through healthy foods. During the #100happydays challenge, food appeared in my social media feeds 34 days out of 100. Foods that appeared the most were fruit salad and tacos. A lot of the foods were healthy and involved my crockpot and meal prep that allowed me to cook once and eat for several days in a row. Some of my most popular posts dealt with food and the recipes I featured, and these posts got some of the most comments, including requests for recipes. Food is the glue of cultural and social interaction. The healthier I eat, the happier I am.
  1. Friends & Family. I have a small family. For the most part it’s just my mom, my son and me. I also have aunts, uncles, and cousins. For the most part, I am close with my cousins. We’re all around the same age, grew up in the same generation with access to the same elements of popular culture. I saw my cousins during the summer at family picnics most of the time when I was a kid, and now I make time to see them when I can. I spend a lot of time with my cousin Tara. I think of her as a best friend and sister, not just a cousin. She’s 1 of 4 kids and I’m an only child. Her sister and I are the same age and get along well too, but we don’t hang out as often as I’d like. Tara and I have similar tastes in music, movies, television shows, art, food, and enjoy mean jokes at the expense of others. She’s a talented artist, a supportive and loving person, and she can always make me laugh or think more clearly about something happening in my life. I will happily tell you that I am blessed with an amazingly diverse and interesting collection of friends and acquaintances. One of my best friends, Pat, has been my friend since we were 14 or 15 years old. He has an uncanny ability to zero-in on what is at the source of the negative feelings I might be feeling about any given situation. Sometimes it’s spooky how well he knows me, but I don’t know what I would do without his friendship. His ability to make me laugh never ceases to amaze me and he is always brutally honest with me when I find myself in crappy situations. He’s usually the first to tell me that I can a) overcome the problem, and b) if I look at a situation a little differently and take full responsibility for my own actions, 9 times out of 10, things will be just fine. I have other amazing friends, like Sarah and Isabelle who have been in my life as long as Pat has, and I have newer friends, like Stephanie who I feel like I’ve known just as long. And, I can’t forget my friend Danielle. She always has a way of making sure I’m taken care of, even if it’s just getting together to talk over dinner. Friends and social occasions really make a difference in my life. Typically, I prefer one-on-one interactions or small gatherings, but every now and then I attend larger events. I have a touch of social anxiety, so that’s where my good friend Booze comes in to play again. Out of 100 days, 31 of my posts were about friends and family.
  1. Film & Television. I’m obsessed with popular culture and have long-loved the escapism of watching movies and TV shows. My preferences for genre tend to be Fantasy, Horror, Science Fiction, Black Comedies, Historical Dramas, Mysteries, and Romance, but usually the Paranormal variety. I love vampires, werewolves, demons, ghosts, and other things that go bump in the night. And, I love superheroes. Marvel’s film franchise has provided me with hours and hours of happiness. And, I’ve been known to fall in love with fictional characters. Here’s a short list: Loki, Magneto, Wolverine, Captain America, John Constantine, Elijah Mikaelson, Hannibal Lecter, Francis Dolarhyde, Damon Salvatore, Simon Bellamy, Lucifer, Preacher, Lawrence Talbot, Rupert Giles, Spock, John Mitchell, Captain Ross Poldark, Spike, Doctor Who…well, you get the idea. In fact, if you’ve read my blog before, you’re familiar with my obsessions and may even share some of them. 12 of 100 posts referred to films or TV.
  1. Books. Reading is important to me. I don’t remember a time in my life when books were not available to me. Bookshelves filled with books, trips to the library and used books stores, talking about new books that a favorite writer had written – these were all common occurrences in my childhood. Before I could read, family members and teachers read to me. Once I could read on my own, I read as many books as I could get my hands on. Stories bring a certain richness to my life that I often can’t find anywhere else. My love of stories, books and words led me to become an English major in college. Why? Because I love to read and write (I’ll get to that shortly). I’ll read just about anything, but like my preferences in film and television, my taste in genre and to a certain extent literary fiction, are the speculative genres – Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction. I also enjoy nonfiction. Over the past few months, I have been consuming Roxane Gay’s books, An Untamed State, Difficult Women, and Bad Feminist. Her writing speaks to me in so many unexpected ways. Not only does she show me the different parts of myself that would normally seem disconnected, but she also shows me how they relate to each other to make me a whole and complicated person. And, more importantly, she makes me want to be a better writer. Books appeared in at least 12 of my posts.
  1. Writing. Writing has been a part of my life almost as long as reading. Narratives have always been an important part of my life. Whether I was watching a Hitchcock film or favorite Western with my grandfather, an epic Romance or Soap Opera with my grandmother, “Creature Double Feature” or “Dark Shadows” with my mother, “King Fu Theater” or “The Prisoner” with my father, or enjoying the ridiculous premises you’d find in 80s music videos, and later an obsession with foreign language films, I consumed a lot of narratives in and out of books growing up. Stephen King’s books lined the bookshelves in almost every house in my immediate family. A year or so ago, my aunt bequeathed her Stephen King collection to me. I hadn’t read a lot of his books, but I had seen film adaptations of them. In the last few years, I took the time to read Carrie, The Shining, The Gunslinger, Misery, Salem’s Lot, and I just finished listening to Doctor Sleep as an audio book in my car. I tried reading IT at one point, but I couldn’t get past the clown. It’s weird. I can watch the film starring Tim Curry and I can’t wait to see the remake with Bill Skarsgård, but the book scares the shit out of me. One day, I will read that book cover to cover. Today is not that day. As much as I love Stephen King’s fiction, my favorite Stephen King book is On Writing. It is the only craft book that ever brought me to tears. I have two copies. A copy I bought to read while earning my MFA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University, and the copy I found on my dad’s bookshelves after he died. My dad was a writer. He wrote a lot, but never finished writing his novel. I finished writing my first novel after his death in 2015. I’ve since started writing 2 more novels, and I’ve been writing poetry and short fiction since I was 12. I’ve only had one short story published, but I will have more of my work published, damn it. I owe that much to my dad. And, I can’t talk about writing without talking about Anne Rice. She is probably one of the biggest influences on my writing, and I must give her at least partial credit for why I write about vampires. Her novels gave vocabulary to some of the things I thought and felt as a teenager, and her vampires made me feel more alive than any characters I’d find in the fiction geared toward teenagers at the time. Thanks for all the good books, Anne. Your work gave me the courage to write about taboo subjects in a way that allowed me to talk about the beauty I found in them.
  1. Self-Care. Technically, participating in the #100happydays challenge is an act of self-care itself. Taking the time to pay attention and make note of the things that make you happy really is an enlightening exercise. In doing so, I found myself seeking out more ways to care for myself. I ate healthier foods. I spent more time in the company of people I love. I tried to develop better habits, like exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, and scheduling downtime so that I could do the things that recharge me and fill my brain with creative ideas. Don’t want to take my word for it? Try the #100happydays challenge for yourself and see what I mean. Self-care and self-love are not selfish acts. Doing nice things for yourself, taking care of yourself, enables us to care for the other people in our lives without killing ourselves to do so.
  1. Art. I’ve talked about several art forms/crafts in this post, namely writing and visual media. I’d also include culinary arts in that list. However, I also like to go to museums and galleries to check out the work of mixed media artists – painters, sculptors, ceramicists, collage makers, and several other mediums. During my 100-day challenge, I visited two galleries, CALC in Carlisle, PA, where my son had a drawing in one of the local student art shows, and Metropolis Collective in Mechanicsburg, PA, as well as The Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. In each art space, I got to see some wonderfully beautiful, disturbing, and thought-provoking art. I need to go to more museums, and I need to create more of my own art. Perhaps there are projects I can work on with my son this summer to get us both creating and spending more quality time together.
  1. Michael Fassbender. Laugh if you must, but Michael Fassbender’s work as an actor brings me happiness on a regular basis. I had enjoyed his work in films prior to last summer when I went to see X-men: Apocalypse, but for some reason, his portrayal of Magneto in that film struck a chord with me that caused me to not only revisit X-men: First Class and X-men: Days of Future Past, but I also rewatched Inglourious Bastards, and then began making my way through his entire body of work. I’m particularly fond of Shame, 12 Years a Slave, A Dangerous Method, Jane Eyre, Jonah Hex, Macbeth, Prometheus, Slow West, and I loved him in the TV show “Hex”. His characters make me laugh, cry, think, feel shame, and I’m not going to lie, ignite my desire. He is a beautiful and talented man. Eventually, I will see all his film and television performances. His Magneto breaks my heart, and makes me question right and wrong. After watching 12 Years a Slave, I went through a period of deep meditation and self-reflection based on my confused feelings of repulsion and attraction for his character, Edwin Epps. His Carl Jung left me feeling sexually frustrated, and his Rochester made me realize how many toxic relationships I have been in and examine why I keep returning to those doomed relationships. He is a master of his craft, not just a handsome face.

This was not my first #100happydays challenge rodeo, so I can attest to the fact that most of the claims made by the folks at 100happydays.com are true. Are they true every single day of the challenge? No. I don’t think anyone is happy every single day of their life. However, I will say that by taking the time to notice the things that do make me happy, I have a better understanding of my own happiness (or lack of happiness). I understand that happiness is a choice, and we are responsible for creating it for ourselves. And, like me, you might be surprised to find that happiness is all around us. All we need to do is take inventory and remind ourselves that happiness is not completely out of reach. In fact, it may be closer than you think.

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