Invisible Chains: My Debut Novel

Michelle-LaneFor those of you who missed the news, my debut novel, Invisible Chains, will be released into the world July 22, 2019 by Haverhill House Publishing. If you’re as excited about this news as I am, you can pre-order a copy on Amazon, and while you’re there, you can check out my fancy new Amazon Author Page. Even though I’ve had my short fiction published, having my first novel published makes me feel like a bonafide author. See, I even have an author photo.

That’s great, Michelle, but what is your book about?

I’m glad you asked.

Jacqueline is a young Creole slave in antebellum New Orleans.  An unusual stranger who has haunted her dreams since childhood comes to stay as a guest in her master’s house. Soon after his arrival, members of the household die mysteriously, and Jacqueline is suspected of murder.  Despite her fear of the stranger, Jacqueline befriends him and he helps her escape. While running from the slave catchers, they meet conjurers, a loup-garou, and a traveling circus of supernatural freaks.  She relies on ancestral magic to guide her and finds strength to conquer her fears on her journey.

Oh, and here is the beautiful cover art designed by the very talented Errick Nunnally.

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As many of you know, writing can be a difficult and solitary pursuit. And, if your goal is to have your work published, the stages of writing, editing, rewriting, editing again, and submitting can feel like a never-ending climb up a hill while pushing a giant rock covered in your own entrails. Plus, if you submit and get nothing but rejections it sometimes seems like a good idea to just give up and find a different way to torture yourself.

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Can I tell you a secret? I’m glad I didn’t give up.

Believe me, I thought about giving up. I thought about giving up a lot. But this story lived inside me for a long time and it refused to be abandoned. This multi-genre slave narrative began its life as a short story back in the early 2000s and had a very different ending. That short story shared space on a thumb drive, untouched  with other abandoned writing projects, for several years. I mean, I would pull it out from time to time and read it but I never did anything with it until I applied to the MFA in Writing Popular Fiction (WPF) program at Seton Hill University (SHU).

Attending SHU was one of the smartest decisions I’ve ever made. And, one of the scariest. At 40, I was completely dissatisfied with my life. I had a job I was on the verge of burning out on, I was unhappily married, and I was primarily responsible for raising my son who had begun to show signs of behavioral problems at daycare and school. I was the primary bread winner, I took care of the house, paid the bills, maintained social connections with friends and family, and one day I realized I was living my life for other people instead of living it for myself.

I began making a mental inventory of the things that brought me joy, and at the top of that list was writing. Writing was something I had done all my life. And, when I was writing I was happier. I started unearthing some of my unfinished short stories and realized they weren’t terrible. And then, I wondered what would happen if I took myself seriously as a writer. I made the decision to apply to SHU after asking a friend about the program. Jenda had nothing but good things to say about the program, and honestly, I think SHU should consider sending her a check each month for her excellent marketing skills.

My short story, “Freedom is in the Blood,” became Invisible Chains over the course of six years. Three years writing my thesis novel in the low residency MFA program, and three years of rewriting, editing, pitching, and submitting. In the process of writing the novel, my protagonist evolved into a stronger character who stands up to monsters to make a better life for herself.

In many ways, my protagonist evolved with me as I made changes in my own life. Deciding to write this book was the first step towards reshaping my life on my own terms. I’ve encountered my share of set backs, obstacles, and people who behave like monsters, but like Jacqueline, I keep moving forward.

In the process of moving forward, I’ve made new friends, reconnected with old friends, and built stronger relationships with the people who cheered me on through the highs and lows of writing this book. They’re good people. And I couldn’t have survived the process without their love and support.

I am very fortunate to be included in such diverse and supportive writing communities like the HWA and as an SHU alumna. And, of course, I wouldn’t be able to brag about getting my book published if I had never met the Editor-in-Chief of Haverhill House Publishing, John M. McIlveen.

I met John last year at StokerCon™ 2018 in Providence, RI. I pitched Invisible Chains to him, a book that took close to five years to write, in about ten minutes. And, much to my surprise, after babbling at him in what I believed to be incoherent nonsense, he said he’d be interested in reading it. That was the first spark of hope, and it has been one pleasant experience after the next working with John and Haverhill House Publishing.

Well, now the book is written and available for pre-order. The hardback edition will be available July 22, 2019. In the meantime, I have a stack of proofs that I would very much like to get into the hands of book reviewers and people who would be willing to blurb the book. If you or someone you know might be a good fit for a book like this, let me know and I’ll reach out to them.

What’s next, you may ask? I don’t know, but I suspect I might have to write another book.

Fiction Fragments: Elsa M. Carruthers

45359013_343895623027443_6852185627127971840_nLast week, Ryan DeMoss stopped by and shared a story about what lurks in the woods. This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes Elsa M. Carruthers.

Elsa is a speculative fiction writer, academic, and poet. She lives in California with her family. In 2011, she earned her MFA in Creative Writing and English from Seton Hill University. Since graduating, Elsa’s work has been published in several anthologies, magazines, and e-zines.

Elsa is an active member of HWA, RWA, SFPA, IAFA, and the Poetry Foundation. She regularly attends writing conventions and loves meeting new people!

Three Questions

GMM: Your story has a near future feeling to it, which I like, because what’s happening in the story feels like something that could be happening today with some slight nuances that set your story in the future, like the hint at the fact that vegetation of any kind if rare and expensive to maintain. As a speculative fiction writer, are you more likely to write about the future or alternate pasts? Which do you prefer and why?

EMC: Thank you. I tend to write present and near future more than anything else. I have written stories and two novel manuscripts set in the past, and it was challenging for me to keep the momentum going because I tend to worry about getting facts down correctly and respecting the sensibilities of the time, etc.

GMM: With the subtle inclusion of plant life being a rare commodity on what I assume to be a future Earth, does you story have a message about global warming? As a female writer, do your stories usually have a deeper meaning or hidden agenda? Can you avoid writing about current events and future worries given the state of the world we live in?

EMCI don’t think I write with an agenda in mind, but I definitely think my anxieties and concerns bleed through; especially in my horror stories. I worry about a lot of things: global warming, over-building, species endangerment, clean water… and that is just the environmental stuff.

GMM: What was the inspiration for this piece? Do you intend to finish it? Without giving too much away, what happens next? Do the two engineers form a closer bond?

EMCOne day I was walking around a neighborhood park and I saw a sign on a massive empty lot across the street. There were several foxes and a hare, I am sure owls and snakes around there too, and lots of native shrubs… a tiny wilderness in the middle of a big city, and they scraped it all bare to put down yet another shopping center. It made me sad and angry. I wished that plants could somehow reclaim some land, you know fight back without going Swamp Thing.

I do intend to finish it, and I am a closet die-hard romantic. He will have to earn her respect and then… the lights dim.

“The De-bugging of Arias Home Systems,” by Elsa M. Carruthers

Aaron’s back and shoulders hurt, but he couldn’t take a break until he traced the source of the corrupted code. Somehow, several houses in the Arias II complex had their default settings switched on. Worse, the default setting was a moss and ivy- covered brick ruins. The angry messages and calls came at such a pace that he’d had to assign his best systems engineers to run interference with the angry homeowners all night.

Celia called up to him from her desk. It was situated behind his in an otherwise plain, empty room. “Aaron, the default setting looks like it is locked in. I have run through each bit of code, and there are no patches… this is somehow organic to the programming.”

“What? No, we didn’t even have this as a model. Rustic cabin yes. Fallen-down building, no. What the hell? Run it again.”

“I am telling you, this isn’t a patch or a virus.”

Aaron turned to look at her, it was rightfully his ass on the line. He cried seniority to HR, and pulled the job out from under her, even though everyone knew she was the best engineer in the company. Calls to HR are supposed to be confidential, but everyone knew about it within an hour.

“Did you do this?”

Celia dropped her headset and glared at him. Her dark eyes pulled tight in anger. “I have been working in this for eight motherfucking years, cabrón. Why would I fuck it up? I have my name practically written all over this. I’d never work again. Don’t get me wrong, as soon as I can, I am going after you. Believe that. But this? Na-ah. I am not that petty.”

Aaron shook his head. She was right. He knew she was. He was about to say so, and tell her how much he wished he could take it all back, because he really did, when Micah let himself in.

“Jen wants to see you.” Micah smirked at Aaron. “Now.”

Aaron sighed. He was fucked. Micah had already pulled the flat-paneled door of the Systems Room open and stepped into the maze of hallway. Aaron watch Micah head toward the elevators without even a glace over his shoulder to see if Aaron followed. Jen was probably ensconced in her Penthouse office; this was very bad.

They rode in silence, but Aaron could feel Micah’s amused gaze on him. He clenched his jaw. He’d love to punch Micah’s smug, shit-eating face. Someday, he told himself. Someday.

They rode up and up, until they indeed reached the Penthouse. Up here, it was like another universe. Real plants, including orchids, grew out of wall gardens and giant concrete planters. There were dwarf trees that seemed to sprout out of the roof-top floor and not for the first time did Aaron marvel at the undoubtfully huge expense it was to reinforce the truces below, not to mention the constant care these plants needed. He never saw a gardener, but knew there had to be someone.

They wove through the courtyard to Jen’s office door. Micah cleared his throat and put his hand up, signaling to Aaron that he had to wait outside until called. He walked through the massive doorway and shut the door behind him.

“Condescending putz,” Aaron said under his breath.

Micah’s voice blasted from a speaker somewhere over the door. “I can hear you,” he sang. “Also, Jen says to give her a minute.”

Ten minutes later, Micah screamed out of the speaker. “SHE SAYS SHE IS READY NOW!” The giant door opened.

“Thank you, asshole,” Aaron sang back in the same tune Micah did before.

Aaron smoothed down his shirt, straightened his tie before stepping into the reception area. Micah pointed to the open French doors to Jen’s office. “Go on in. She’s waiting for you.”

Jen sat behind a massive Teak desk, probably from the last supply of Teak in the world. Her stilettoed feet were propped up on the right-side corner of her desk and Aaron did his best not to look up her skirt. It unsettled him, as it was probably meant to.

“Sit down Aaron,” Jen said. He sat in one of the two black sling-backed chairs and balanced himself on the edge of the seat to keep from sinking back into it like a hammock.

She laughed. “I can see that you don’t often sit in this type of chair. If it is more comfortable, you may stand. This won’t take long.”

He cleared his throat and waited for her to continue.

“I have cleared out the residents of Arias II, by giving them all resort passes to Juniper. I have also given a press release and offered a non-specific, non-legally binding apology for this inconvenience. That is what I have done. What you are going to do is fix this goddamned mess!”

She smoothed the lavender-lilac colored fringe of bangs from her forehead and pushed her red reading glasses up the bridge of her nose.

“You will fix this and find out how it happened in the first place! Also, you better make sure that this malware—”

“It isn’t malware as far as we can tell,” Aaron interrupted.

Jen gave him a withering look that made him want to crawl away and never come back. “Well, I suppose that is some good news. I want all of your logs, forward them to me through the internal server.” She waved at him to go.

Aaron made to go. He hesitated, wondering if he should mention that the code was somehow overwritten.

“Is there something else? Should I get Celia as point on this?” She goaded him.

“Nope, I am working with her and we’re making good progress.” He left without looking at her or Micah.

Back in his office, Celia was deep in thought behind her multiple monitors. He could see the lines of code reflected off her anti-glare glasses and he again wanted to tell her how sorry he was, how he respected her, how working with her, even though she hated him, was the best thing that ever happened to him. Instead, he sat down and got to work.

He couldn’t see that anything was wrong. And then, by accident, he noticed the code rewriting itself in sections. It was so subtle, the changes seemed like nothing, a vine instead of a tree in the front. And he wouldn’t have caught it all if he hadn’t actually watched a bit of code rewrite itself.

“Celia, it looks like it might be malware after all. I just saw a—”

“Uh-huh,” she said in a dreamy out of it voice. “I saw it too, trying to trace the little hijo de la chingada, but he is slick.”

Of course, she saw it first. He smiled to himself.

“I am thinking,” she said in the same far away voice, “that it isn’t just malware, but some sort of ransomware. Whoever this is, is chevere as fuck!” she said with real admiration. “Anyway,” she said without looking up, “what’d Jen have to say?”

He told her how she got people out and that she threatened to put Celia on the job, hoping that Celia wouldn’t rub it in too much. She surprised him by holding his gaze for a few seconds. “Look, I am only pissed because you could’ve won fair and square. Not that weaselly shit you pulled.”

“I know. I can’t even tell you how sorry I am.”

“Sorry don’t fix shit. Now you’ve got to earn your title. Don’t be such a huevón, and you will be like top five level. I mean, you’ll never be as good as me, but, hey, nobody can be.”

He smiled. “I’m going to order some food. Looks like I will be here a while, but you don’t have to be. You probably have things you want to do, and this is my mess.” He couldn’t possibly ask her to pull another all-nighter to save him, though he really wanted to.

“Nah, it is all right. I want those mini panini thingies and I am dying for some fries. Get that and I am good to go for a few more hours at least.”

Aaron texted the order. They ate as they worked. Aaron came close to smashing his keyboard several times. “Fuck! Every time I am close to stopping the changes, they just go around me. Who the fuck is this?”

Celia muttered something to herself. She was trying to trace the source of the hack. “Slippery fool, whoever it is.”

Just as she said that, Aaron’s commands no longer worked. He tried to override, nothing. “I can’t,” he said.

“Me either. This is bad. Very bad.”

Aaron’s hands shook, and his shirt stuck to him where the sweat bled through his undershirt. “Was this a distraction so that the hacker could clone the drivers?”

Celia stepped away from her bank of monitors. She rubbed the crease between her eyes and pursed her lips. “The whole program is hijacked. I’m not even sure we can do a Systems Restore.” She squatted in front of her backpack and pulled out an external drive. “We can try to reroute; use this to—”

“You’re a genius!”

“I know,” she said and winked. Celia placed the external drive on her desk. Aaron touched her arm.

“You don’t have to stay. You’re in the clear for this, I will take the fall.”

Celia looked at him up and down. “Nope, I am taking this hijo or hija out!” She plugged it in and was immediately confronted with firewall after firewall. They weren’t failproof, just annoying and time-wasting.

“You see this? This is old school right here.”

Aaron saw it. The ransomware hid on the OS and then replicated itself in file after file. “You know your external drive is toast now too, right?”

“Ah mierda, I didn’t think of that.” She sighed. “I am so tired.”

“I hate to say it, but I think we’re done.” Aaron tried to do a System Restore, figuring that they could rebuild the destroyed coding, but he saw that even as he typed, the hacker had full control.

“I’m iced-out,” he said to Celia.

“Me too,” she said and threw her headset across the room. “Carajo!”

“It’s okay. I’ll figure something out.” But he wasn’t even fooling himself.

All their monitors flashed, then went black. They stood in silence, each watching the dead monitors. Several seconds went by. Neither of them spoke though Aaron knew Celia must be feeling as helpless and frustrated as he did.

The screens turned back on. It looked like a manual reboot, but then Aaron and Celia’s faces were on the screens.

“That was like a few minutes ago.” Aaron’s throat went dry. The hacker customized the malware and had complete remote access control of the computers. But why show them the pictures? Why not leave the monitors off instead of teasing them?

Celia still stared at the screens as she spoke. “What are they trying to tell us?”

“I think it is a tease. We should go down to the server room and see if we can do something from there.” He made to pat her shoulder and stopped himself. She wasn’t some employee working overtime. She was the only person who could help. And he’d better put any romantic ideas he had away.

I haven’t confirmed a guest for next week, so next’s week is a mystery. Do you have a fragment you’re dying to share with the Interwebs? Send it my way at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Fiction Fragments: David Day

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Before I even begin talking about my fellow Seton Hill University Alum, David Day, I’m going to brag about the fact that we both have stories in this political horror anthology due out later this month from Scary Dairy Press, so pick up a copy.

Last week, Kenya Wright stopped by and talked about the responsibility female writers of color have to include deeper issues like racism, classism, and sexism in their writing, even if they are writing about vampires with double penises. This week, David Day joins Girl Meets Monster to share his thoughts on genre and how it should be considered an analytical tool rather than a creative one. His thoughts on horror fiction and the connections he perceives between horror and romance raised some serious emotions for me. I’m not crying! You’re crying!

headshotDavid Day believes the future is a paradox, simultaneously representing beautiful hope and terrible possibility, and that we are on an ever-constant journey to resolve that paradox into the now. David received his MA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University in June 2011. He is the author of one novel, Tearstone, as well as several short stories. Find out more about him at his snazzy but woefully neglected website: http://www.davidlday.com.

Three Questions

GMM: Your fragment has a lot going on. Initially, I felt like I was reading a fairy tale, but then I got the sense that we’re in a post-apocalyptic world or, at the very least the story isn’t set in the here and now. There are clear references to a past (or recent present) that are familiar to contemporary culture, so maybe not too far in the future, but the habit of Cassiopeia to fade out of reality tells me this is an alternate reality at the least. How would you categorize this piece? What genre or genres do you typically write in? When you sit down to write, do you have a genre in mind, or do you simply set out to tell a story?

DD: I’d place this one as science fantasy. There are, of course, some dark elements to it, but nothing I’d qualify as horror specifically. It’s meant to have a fairy tale quality to it, and you’re right about the post-apocalyptic setting. The main characters are among the last surviving humans who are either being culled or killed, depending on a few key qualities of their personality that come out much later in the story.

I write among the subgenres of speculative fiction, typically horror, science fiction, supernatural fiction, and dystopian. My inclination is toward horror and the supernatural, and those elements usually surface in every piece, but I have been known to write a story or two that don’t have any horror in them.

Every new story is a unique endeavor for me, and I don’t try to pin it to a specific genre at the outset. My goal in writing a short story is to try and elicit some nugget of human experience. The inclination toward horror and darkness comes from a belief that we are often most human in the darkest of places. Sometimes that darkness draws out the good in us, sometimes the bad. And sometimes the story just falls flat and I move on to the next one. Novels, however, I do try to pin to a genre up front. I’m okay if it changes when working on the first draft, but novels are such an investment in time and energy, and selling them is such a market-oriented activity, that to write a novel without knowing the target readership ahead of time feels a bit backward.

GMM: I know that you write horror fiction, because your work has been published in horror anthologies, but how do you define horror? There was quite a bit of discussion in the writing program at Seton Hill about whether or not we should adhere to the strict, traditional definitions of specific genres, or simply write stories that contain elements of multiple genres, which often feels more natural. Which side of this debate do you fall on? Do you consider yourself a horror writer? Why or why not?

DD: Delineating genres is difficult, in my opinion. Horror can be especially tricky to pin down, due in part to the rash of slasher films in the 80s. Last weekend I sat on a panel on horror at the Imaginarium Convention in Louisville, KY, and one of the attendees asked if there were critical or essential elements that need to be present in a horror story. After a few seconds of silence as the panelists thought, a few spoke on how horror isn’t about this or that specific element, but about the characters. And then the conversation took off.

Horror is about emotions, not tangible things, and for those emotions to surface in writing, the story must be oriented toward the characters. Broadly speaking, horror is all the flavors of fear: helpless, frightened, overwhelmed, worried, inadequate, inferior, worthless, insignificant, excluded, persecuted, nervous, exposed, threatened, weak, rejected, insecure, anxious, etc., etc. Horror uses circumstances to bring these feelings out in the reader, and the best way to get a reader to feel something is through a character’s emotions. For me, horror is not only about those emotions, but the conquering of those emotions, and I believe the most satisfying horror stories are survival stories, where the characters involved are able to push through those emotions. Horror is about dwelling in the darkest of places and reemerging again transformed into something more resilient.

As for adhering strictly to genre, I call bullshit. When it comes to art, there are two kinds of tools: creative and analytical. Creative tools help the artist make something meaningful. Analytical tools help categorize and describe a work after it’s been created. Genre is an analytical tool that helps readers find works they may be interested in reading. Every story should be about some aspect of humanity, and to portray humanity properly requires showing a spectrum of emotions. Every story is a love story, a horror story, a mystery, a fantasy. Imagine going to a concert only to have the musician play a single note over and over. I’ll be generous – imagine them playing a single refrain repeatedly. How long before you get up and leave? I give you ten minutes, tops, unless you’re at a Phillip Glass concert, in which case maybe twenty. Stories that hammer on a single note tend to feel flat. Stories that show the complexity of human emotions necessarily draw from multiple genres. Genre labels help sell fiction, and can help a creator understand what the market potential is for their work, but genre is not very useful during the creative act.

Am I a horror writer? I grew up an avid reader of horror, science fiction, and poetry. I’m largely influenced by the works of Stephen King, Arthur C. Clark, H.P. Lovecraft, Kurt Vonnegut, Edgar Allen Poe, William Blake, Isaac Asimov, and e.e. cummings. If that makes me a horror writer, cool. But if my works appear on a shelf under Contemporary Fairy Tales or Dystopian Victorian Techno-Romance Spy Thrillers, and those labels help the readers who might like my stories find them, then extra cool.

GMM: There are hints at romance, or at least, unrequited love in your fragment. Do you often include romantic relationships in your stories? What inspired the relationship between the narrator and Cassiopeia?

DD: When I was at Seton Hill, I developed an appreciation for some similarities between romance and horror in terms of the focus on character and emotion. I’ve come to believe the opposite of love is not hate. The opposite of love is fear, and isolation as an intense precursor to or flavor of fear is a highly effective trope in horror as is demonstrated in this awesome montage of “No Signal” clips.

Notice how most of the movies cited are horror movies. I don’t necessarily try to include romantic relationships in stories, but I do try to use love relationships such as family bonds or even intensely tight friendships as a foil to isolation. As a writer, I believe having characters move across the love-fear spectrum gives a more complete view and increases the effect on the reader.

As for what inspired the relationship, I’m not sure I can point to any particular experience. Both the narrator and Cassiopeia suffered through a lot prior to their world going to hell. Sometimes we find strength when someone else’s well-being is at stake, and sometimes just having a hand to hold can make the most difficult of times more bearable and give one the will to persist.

Untitled Fragment, by David Day

Cassiopeia stumbled on a red pine’s thick root, her pink locks fluttering across my face like a kaleidoscope of butterflies. I tried to catch her, but she slipped from my grimy, sweaty hand and fell to the forest floor in a boneless heap. She lay still and silent, as if sleeping, her breath shallow and faint.

Her fugues grew worse with each day.

Something large shuffled through the woods, too far away for me to get a good fix on it, yet too close for our safety. I stretched out on the ground, spooned up against Cassiopeia, and placed a hand over her mouth to guard against any sudden outburst. Sweat covered her bone-cold skin, the faint smell of old heroine oozing from her like thick, cloying perfume.

“I think I hear one,” I whispered, more for my sanity than for her benefit. “Keep quiet.”
She moved her head slightly, the semblance of a nod, no doubt a tremor, but I wanted to believe otherwise. I stared up through the trees at a sky darkened for months to a confusion of shadow and light, never night or day, but always somewhere between, as if the earth had become stuck between dreaming and waking. Smudges of light riddled the fabric of the sky, stars barely discernible from the slightly darker background of space. I gave up on trying to see them, closed my eyes, and listened.

The steps echoed regular and heavy, the clip-clop of a trotting horse, their staccato rhythm heading our way.

Cassiopeia struggled a little, probably frightened even in her current state. She squirmed against me, groggy and weak, hopefully coming back around, but if we moved, if it found us…

I clamped down a little harder, enough to quiet her without hurting her.

I shifted and by some ill turn of fate caught a glimpse of the juggernaut through the trees as it paused, a great pillar of mahogany skin stretched over thick muscles, massive rubbery wings folded against its back, a thin barbed tail curled in a smooth s-shape, knees on the wrong side of its legs. It bent slightly backward and pressed its thick, clawed hands into the small of its back.

I managed a breath, then the creature took off again, galloping with surprising speed and agility. I waited, frozen, gulping thick breaths, then, listening as the last of the hoof-beats faded from earshot, slipped my hand from Cassiopeia’s mouth.

She rolled over to face me, awareness in her eyes for the first time in hours, pink strands of damp hair plastered to her forehead.

“I want to go with them.”

I brushed the threads aside, heart thumping a little harder as I fought the urge to draw her closer, envelop her entirely. Instead, I laid a palm across her cheek then rose and pulled a bottle of water from my tattered pack. I offered her a hand, which she accepted with a blatant scowl that sunk my heart further. I sipped from the bottle to mask my hurt, savored the lukewarm liquid before swallowing, and passed the water to her.

“Welcome back.”

She accepted the bottle, shrugged, and as she sipped she flickered like some grainy art-house film. The bottle fell through her hand and landed on a bed of decaying white oak leaves, water spilling like blood. She solidified, whimpered, then retrieved the bottle before it could bleed out.

I could relate to her spells of delirium, having floundered through withdrawal myself, but this flickering of hers, the slipping out of reality like some half-forgotten dream, unnerved me almost as much as the devil in the woods.

She handed the bottle back, nearly empty. “This the last one?”

I nodded, rubbed her shoulder, reassuring her of our safety, reassuring myself of her existence.

“We’ll find more soon. I can smell the saltwater on the air. We’ll head north when we hit the ocean, and we should come across a town before long. Felt like we passed through one every ten minutes driving to my grandmother’s cabin as a kid.”

I told a half-truth, unsure if I smelled the ocean, but Cassiopeia looked comforted. We walked in silence until our bodies could take no more, hours it seemed, and while the smell of the Atlantic was stronger with each step, we did not reach it.

Even if she didn’t talk to me, I was thankful Cassiopeia stayed with me. Though her episodes were more frequent, she appeared more sentient than she had in days. Maybe her system was finally expelling the last remnant of her backslide from before.

We stopped at a small pond to bathe and, once clean, we settled down to sleep, each of us bone-weary and spent. We curled up between two worn comforters stolen from a child’s abandoned bedroom in Skowhegan, back-to-back. I listened to the slow, steady rhythm of her light snoring, wishing for more intimacy, knowing she would never feel the same, hanging on each beat of her breath like a totem of sanity.

It took more than an hour for sleep to find me.

Next week, David X. Wiggin joins Girl Meets Monster. Do you have a piece of fiction hidden under your mattress that might benefit from a second look? Send it my way at chellane@gmail.com.

Fiction Fragments: Michael Arnzen

Last week, Matt Betts stopped by to talk about the upside of writing fan fiction and how it can help novice writers find their voices and improve their craft. This week, horror writer Michael Arnzen joins Girl Meets Monster to talk about his writing process and why humor and horror are so closely related in our psyches.

ArnzenShades18Michael Arnzen holds four Bram Stoker Awards and an International Horror Guild Award for his disturbing (and often funny) fiction, poetry and literary experiments. He has been teaching as a Professor of English in the MFA program in Writing Popular Fiction at Seton Hill University since 1999. New stories are coming out soon in the anthologies Knee Deep in Little Devils and Collected Christmas Horror Shorts II, with more insanity soon to come. To discover his writing, seek out the books Proverbs for Monsters or 100 Jolts. To see what he’s up to now visit gorelets.com or follow him on twitter @MikeArnzen where he routinely posts news, oddities and random tidbits of terror.

Three Questions

GMM: What inspired this story, and how autobiographical is it? Are you like Reynolds? Do you dread talking about your writing when people put you on the spot?

MA: My process is very loose and I’m always on the lookout for story ideas by twisting things we take for granted, or paying attention to the peculiarities happening around us in everyday life. The idea for “Poe Bread” came to me last time I was visiting Baltimore, the land of Edgar Allan Poe and a place where you can get good Poor Boy sandwiches. I think I made some dumb pun about “Poe Boy” sandwiches at a restaurant, but after I stopped laughing at my own joke, I wondered whether there was a story there, and it mutated into the phrase “Poe Bread” in my mind. As I drove back to Pittsburgh, I mused over a plot that might unfold the meaning of the phrase and started writing the next day to see if the idea had any legs.

All my characters are always extreme or abstract versions of how I imagine I would act or react if I were that kind of person, but even when they might have the kinds of roles I might have — writers, teachers, pet owners, etc. — I don’t really identify with them much beyond that, because they are all always splinters of my personality on some level, even when they are completely unlike me. This is a tough question to answer, but a fitting one to talk about in your “fragments” series, actually… because characters are always fragments of a writer’s identity, while being embellishments, too, at the same time.

So Reynolds is a writer, and I kind of like his imaginary fiction series about dead rock stars (I love pop music and could totally get into writing that!), but I wanted him to be more of the kind of writer that the restaurant owner would fawn over, rather than the kind of writer I am. So he’s probably a lot stuffier and more reserved than I am. I don’t dread talking about my stories (well, not the finished ones), but I do kind of feel uncomfortable with people asking me to explain them. Though I do appreciate it when people read my work and tell me they enjoy it, I really don’t enjoy adulation, because I write to connect with people of a like mind, not to feel superior to them. I like it more when someone says “You’re a sick man, Arnzen!” with a knowing gleam in their eye than when they praise me fannishly.  But I can be a fan boy too, so I understand.  The waiter in the Metallica t-shirt is probably just as much like who I really am, too, if not more so — even though I’ve never waited tables or owned restaurants or baked bread.  It’s all fiction, exploration of the fragments trying to find a whole. And I ain’t done yet.

GMM: Academics have suggested that there is a connection between horror and humor. I think even many lay people would agree that there is a healthy amount of comic relief in horror films. Your work tends to employ humor even though you write about dark things. When did this connection occur to you and/or have you always written horror stories with a thread of humor? Is it just a personality quirk that comes out in your writing?

I think laughter bonds us, even though we’re all doomed.

MA: It’s funny: even when I’ve tried to write comedy, people tell me that it’s very disturbing or dark or not funny at all.  Or when I’m at a fiction reading, delivering a really devious and dark line with seriousness someone in the audience will erupt with laughter. Sometimes it’s just me, laughing at myself, too.  Fantasy is ludicrous, and the “gross out” often has a humorous (albeit juvenile) appeal, but that absurdity leads to originality and truth in a way that other things don’t. Horror comedy is tricky to write well and I don’t think I’m good at it when I try too hard to be funny.  So I have given up trying to be funny or scary:  I just write in a way that lets myself go, and try to not to censor myself too much.  I think what I’m doing as a writer is just like letting myself dream or be mentally drunk on the page, and to feel that liberty that you don’t get in everyday life.

An interviewer once categorized me as a “dark jester” in a feature story once and I kind of liked that, a lot, because it reminds me of Poe’s “Imp of the Perverse.”  Another writer called my work “sardonic” across the board, and I like that a lot too.  The comedic stuff I’m producing is probably just related to my worldview and my penchant for the absurd and ironic. I grew up with MAD magazine and Saturday Night Live, and love comedies as much as horror movies.  I like to laugh in the face of death and such — it’s a kind of defiance, but also a quirky way of dealing with anxiety and tension. I think laughter bonds us, even though we’re all doomed.

GMM: What is Poe Bread? I’m dying to know what happens when Reynolds eats it.

MA: Well, it’s only a fragment right now because I haven’t >fully< plotted out what happens, and what I've written has barely gotten to the real story — I gave myself too much liberty to explore character and setting at the beginning, and that's all it really is right now, building up to the very question you asked.  I like to leave a lot of space for new plot directions and other ideas to occur as I write, so I often don't know what I'm doing till I'm doing it, to be honest. I like to think that transfers over to the reader too, where discoveries seem to happen logically and at natural points. But I do know the answer to your questions. Without giving away TOO much, let's just say that there is an old dough "starter" — that is, a baker's saved ball of old dough that gets put into the next batch, and then a ball is taken out of that batch for the next one, ad infinitum — which has been passed down since Poe's day through the bread baking process over the years at this restaurant, and "Poe Bread" contains it. This bread is somewhat magical (or contaminated?) in that it "inspires" Reynolds to write some twisted things… and he becomes both obsessed with the dough and the man who owns it. The two main characters reveal their suspicions about what the dough contains as the story progresses and they begin to do devious things. Does the bread have opiates in it?  Could the starter contain the DNA of Poe himself?  All is revealed in a twisted ending, which I hope echoes the plot of a famous Poe story.

If, that is, I finish it. I might need more… inspiration.  And it's lunch time now, so I'll end there.  Bon Appetit!

Poe Bread, by Michael A. Arnzen

Jim Reynolds had long heard of Baltimore Batter but it wasn’t until he was actually sitting in the restaurant bakery, holding a Poor Boy sandwich in both of his hands, that he understood its popularity. The place had that comforting, beery odor of yeast that most good bakeries greeted its guests with — but here it had seeped into the yellowing stone walls and worn wooden tables for a hundred years, if its storefront sign was to be believed, saturating the place like smoke in a whiskey barrel. He loved it. The bakery’s ambience was so out-of-place compared to the other shops in downtown Baltimore that it had felt to Reynolds like stepping into a 19th century painting. And though time had certainly taken its toll on the decor, the disheveled look of the place only made the food taste better. The shrimp on his sandwich was so fresh it virtually wriggled on the bun and the special sauce in his mouth was as tangy as over-sweetened tea. But it was the bread that made him drool between bites. Eggy and warm in his hands, fresh out of the oven. He squeezed the crisping bun like a lover, and devoured.

The waiter — a thirty-something man with covered with both muscles and wrinkles — brought his check early, sliding it under the vertical roll of paper towels that served as a napkin dispenser. He wore a sweaty black Metallica concert t-shirt that had had faded so much it simply read “licca” above a hazy upside-down cross. He stood there, tossing razor-cut jet black bangs to one side like they were getting in his eyes as he diddled impatiently on his pad.

Reynolds slid him his Mastercard and returned to the precious last bite of his Poor Boy.

The waiter snapped up the card, turned, took one step, then pivoted back. “Wait,” he said to himself, then crouched down so that their eyes could meet. “You’re not the Jim Reynolds are you?”

A bit peeved, he swallowed. “Don’t know what you mean. There’s plenty of them in the phone book…”

“Yes,” the waiter grinned, scanning his face. “You’re him! I know you from your book jackets.”

Reynolds smiled. It wasn’t often that readers recognized him.

“Man, I love all your stuff. The Hendrix Appendix, The Joplin Goblin…shit, I’ve read them all. ”

He nodded, never quite knowing what to say when these things happened. “Thank you.”

“You’re a god to me, man. Damn, I wish I had a book you could sign.” The waiter padded his pockets, as though searching for one of them on his person.

“I’ll gladly sign the check,” Reynolds said.

“No way, dude. The sandwich is on the house.”

Reynolds started liking this guy. “In that case,” he said, reaching into his satchel, “I’ve got something else for you.” He pulled out an advanced review copy of his forthcoming rock-horror novel, scribbled something on the title page and passed it to the man.

“Ho-lee shit.” The waiter swiped his hands down his apron and held the book like it was the Shroud of Turin. He read the title aloud: “The Johnny Rotten Corpse. Man!” Then his eyebrows went squiggly. “Wait a minute…ain’t Johnny Rotten still alive?”

“Not in my book.”

The waiter laughed, read the inscription — “Hope the Poor Boy didn’t struggle! Yours, JR” — and shook Jim’s hand when he stood.

“Loved the food. The bread here is amazing.” He shouldered his bag.

“Tell you what,” the waiter said. “Any time you come here, the food’s on me.”

Reynolds’s eyebrows nearly jumped off his forehead. “I couldn’t…”

The waiter held up his hands in protest. “No, as the owner of this place, I set the rules. And I insist.”

“My friend,” Reynolds said, as his esteem for the man rose a notch and he held out a hand for another shake, “I will take you up on this. You can count on it.”

“Come as often as you like,” he said, shaking briskly. “But there’s just one stipulation.”

“What’s that?”

“That I get to sit with you and talk about your books.”

If there was one thing Reynolds hated about being a writer, it was being put on the spot about his work. He never took interview calls and he never attended conventions. He liked being a recluse — the chance to be left alone and be his own boss was what drew him to the profession in the first place. But the smell of bread in his nose and the tastes of yeast and fish still lingering on his tongue made this opportunity just too damned good to pass up. “You’ve got yourself a deal, my friend. Only I can’t promise I’ll be the best company.”

“Psht.” He waved his hand. “I’m sure I’ve seen worse.” A bell dinged from somewhere in the kitchen and the man frowned at the distraction. “For whom the bell tolls,” he muttered, and Reynolds wasn’t sure if he was being literal or referencing Faulkner or reciting Metallica. But it didn’t matter. He found his sneery reaction charming.

Reynolds began to gather up his bag.

“Okay, come back some… wait, don’t leave. I got something you’d appreciate in the back. Sit tight.”

Reynolds watched as he darted past customers and pushed into the “IN” door with his shoulder. He was back through the “OUT” door in what seemed like a heartbeat, carrying a paper bag, with a loaf of black bread nosing out of it.

“Take this, my gift to you.” The owner of Baltimore Batter handed him the bag, and Reynolds could feel lingering heat between his crackling fingers. “It’s the house specialty — a family recipe. It’s called Poe Bread. It inspires.”

Reynolds wanted to thank him, but the man was already back in the kitchen before he had the chance. He looked down at the Poe Bread, cradled in his arm and swaddled in crinkly brown paper like a newborn. “Inspires?”

Next week, Alicia Wright joins Girl Meets Monster. Do you have a fragment screaming to see the light of day? Show it to me at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Fiction Fragments: K.W. Taylor

Last week, Girl Meets Monster had a visit from Lana Ayers who talked to us about her debut novel, Time Flash: Another Me and this week K.W. Taylor is here to share a fragment about a time-traveling elevator.

small_bw_headshot_professional_kw_taylor.jpgK.W. Taylor’s first science fiction novel, The Curiosity Killers, came out in the spring of 2016 from Dog Star Books. Her debut novel, The Red Eye, combines urban fantasy and horror (Alliteration Ink, 2014). Her work has been published in numerous periodicals. Anthology appearances include Ink Stains (Dark Alley, 2017), A Terrible Thing (555/Carrion, 2016), Life after Ashes (Alliteration Ink 2015), The Grotesquerie (Mocha Memoirs Press, 2014), 100 Worlds (Dreamscape Press, 2013), Sidekicks! (Alliteration Ink, 2013), Once Bitten, Never Die (Wicked East Press, 2011), and 555 Vol. 3: Questions and Cancers (Carrion Blue, 2018). Taylor holds an M.F.A. in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University, an M.A. in literature, and teaches college in Ohio, where she’s working on her Ph.D. She blogs at kwtaylorwriter.com.

Three Questions

Girl Meets Monster: What was your inspiration for this fragment, and why did you abandon it?

KWT: I started and abandoned this fragment in 2014, with the working title “Elevator Out of Time.” When I began it, I was noodling around with my thesis novel’s mechanics of time traveling, and I wrote this as a possible spin-off story that could explain how time travel worked. Ultimately, I didn’t like the mechanics, and I realized later that the setting was a little too on-the-nose for someone working in higher education (you’ll see what I mean).

Girl Meets Monster: Time travel is obviously a very popular trope in genre fiction, what was the first time travel story that caught your attention, and why?

KWT: Some of my first exposure to time travel was via the first Back to the Future film, which came out at a formative time in my life. BttF is a much more historic/nostalgic view of time travel, however, and the physics elements of it as well as the connection with space travel is much more apparent in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels, which I read as a kid. Perhaps because of these two early influences, I tend to blend that sense of mystery and nostalgia with the element of physics and space travel, and my own time travel work is a bit more hybrid as a result.

Girl Meets Monster: In your opinion, what are some of the worst examples of how time travel has been used in fiction? Some of the best?

KWT: Some of the best examples of time travel fiction other than the above include Quantum Leap, which hits that history/nostalgia element really hard, and Stephen King’s 11/22/63, which does the same but goes much, much darker. In the latter, I especially love the added fate and horror elements that imply that while you may be able to travel in time, changing history is going to get you in some serious hot water and may indeed kill you. Conversely, some of the worst examples of time travel in fiction are those that are poorly researched. If you’re going to dive into the past, you need to recognize that you’re writing not just science fiction but historical fiction, too, and that even the recent past is much different culturally than the present. There were some dodgy examples of this in the recent hulu series Future Man and in the Hot Tub Time Machine films, for example, but comedic takes on time travel can overcome a lot of problems if the comedy is solid. Literature-wise, I have to admit to not being a huge fan of H.G. Well’s The Time Machine, mostly because I think future time travel can come off heavy handed, as that book reads today.

Elevator Out of Time, by K.W. Taylor

Cheryl nodded to the other passenger in the elevator, a tall man with dark skin wearing what she thought of as the quintessential college professor attire—white shirt, corduroy suit jacket, and jeans. Cute. Awfully tall, and cute, she thought. She turned around to face the doors as they slid shut.

The elevator crept along and stopped at the second floor, where two students got on. “Oh, hey, Mrs. Tucker!” one chirped at her.

Cheryl cringed at the “Mrs.” but didn’t correct her.

“Hi,” she said. “How’s your semester going?” She avoided using the girl’s name, which escaped her, but she recognized her from a seminar the previous year. Kayley? Kelly? Something…

“Not bad,” the girl replied. She gestured to the boy beside her. “He’s graduating this term, though. Can you believe it?”

The boy gave Cheryl a wan smile. Cheryl knew him, too, from a different class. “Whoa, I just had you in 101!” she said. “Can that really be four years ago?”

“Yup,” the boy confirmed. He turned to the girl. “Kayla, text me when you get home,” he said.

Kayla, that’s it.

The doors opened on the third floor. “See ya, Mrs. Tucker!” The boy exited the elevator, and another girl got on, occupying the space he left. She hit the button for the fourth floor.

“You going to the quiz bowl meeting?” Kayla asked.

“Wouldn’t miss it,” Cheryl answered. She realized a deeper voice had joined her own, and looked up at the man beside her. “Oh, gosh, are you Dr. Middleton?” she asked. She held out her hand. “I knew the new history department member was co-chairing this time, but I don’t think we’ve met yet.”

The man smiled and shook her hand. “Yeah, Jeff Middleton. Dr. Tucker, is it?”

“Ms.,” she corrected. “Still working on the ‘doctor’ part.” She willed herself to ignore the pang tugging at her with that admission and instead turned back to Kayla. “What’s your subject area going to be?” she asked.

“Mm, I’m thinking the world wars,” Kayla replied.

The elevator lurched and came to a stop, but the doors remained closed. An alarm sounded.

“Ah, crap.” The girl from the third floor leaned in front of Jeff and punched the “door open” button. “I got a class in ten minutes.” She started rummaging in her purse before pulling out a cell phone. “My battery’s dead. Anybody got a phone?”

“There’s an emergency panel,” Cheryl said, pointing at the rectangle beneath the buttons. “Here.” She scooted next to the girl and opened the panel. Instead of a phone there was an intercom speaker and a button. Cheryl knelt and pressed the button. “Hello? Hello? I think we’re stuck. We’re in the Roberts Hall elevator.”

Silence.

“My battery should be good,” Kayla said. She pulled out her own phone and started touching the screen.

“Call campus security,” Cheryl said, standing back up. She rattled off the number.

“How do you have that memorized?” Jeff asked.

Cheryl shrugged. “I’m probably not the only woman on campus who does,” she replied. “Unfortunately.”

“Oh, dear.” Jeff furrowed his brow. “I thought crime wasn’t a problem here. When I interviewed—”

“It’s not, not really,” Cheryl interjected. “I just work a lot of late nights and stuff. Can’t be too careful.”

Kayla frowned and pulled her phone from her ear. “I don’t think I have any bars,” she said.

“Not surprised,” the other girl said. “Probably not awesome reception in here, thick walls and all this metal. Crap, we have a quiz today!”

“It’s okay,” Cheryl said. “What was your name?”

The girl opened her eyes wide. “Simone. Don’t you remember me? I was in your class like last semester.” She held out her palm and pointed to a spot in the middle of it. “I sat right next to that guy who never shut up, the older dude.”

Cheryl laughed. “Yes, right, sorry sorry.” She shook her head. “I get pretty busy and sometimes names escape me.”

Except I’ve had trouble remembering a lot of things, Cheryl mused. Sure, I have a lot of students, but still . . . She thought back to a day the previous week when she’d driven herself home from work, only to realize she was at an apartment complex she hadn’t lived in for eight years.

“I have a mobile,” Jeff said.

Cheryl noticed for the first time that he had a slight lilt to his voice, not a thick accent but a hint of one. She imagined time spent abroad, studying and traveling. Interesting. And who calls it a mobile?

Jeff’s phone was an ancient device with a flip up panel. He opened it and started pressing buttons. “Wait, here we go, I think it’s ringing.” He held it up to his ear. “Hello! Yes, yes, we’re stuck in a lift in Roberts Hall. Four of us, two students, one staff, one faculty.”

Cheryl’s jaw clenched.

“Right, so d’you think you’d be able to send . . . Mm hm. No, Roberts Hall. What?” He pulled the phone from his ear and frowned at it. “This is campus security, yeah? Alpha College? Well, then, I don’t know what sort of . . . Blast!” He shut the phone. “They hung up on me.”

Cheryl looked up at him. “What? Why?”

“You’ll love this. They said there’s no such building as Roberts Hall and I should stop making prank calls.” He shook his head. “What sort of school have I signed on to here?”

The alarm ceased, and the elevator car began moving again, only this time it appeared to be going down instead of up. “My quiz!” Simone shrieked. She reached out to push the fourth floor button again, but Kayla put a hand on her shoulder.

“No, don’t mess with it! At least it’s moving now. You can run up the stairs,” she told Simone. “I’m sure your prof will understand.”

“Four flights? Ugh,” Simone muttered.

“Why would campus security say stuff like that?” Cheryl asked.

“Beats me,” Jeff said. He tucked his phone inside his jacket. “Perhaps they’ve got a new employee or some such.”

The elevator came to a stop, and the doors opened. Blazing sunshine greeted the four of them. Cheryl shielded her eyes.

Kayla leaned forward and peered through the doors. “What the hell?”

Cheryl blinked and looked outside.

Field. Everywhere, as far as the eye could see. Unblemished, mostly, save a few patches of earth that looked to be in the middle of being ploughed for crops. Cheryl recognized the highway, but the dozens of fast food restaurants occupying the east side were gone. The only familiar sight was a greasy spoon called Smithee’s, a run-down spot where one was prone to contract foodborne illness. But right now it didn’t look run-down, it looked pristine, a “GRAND OPENING” banner fluttering from its front awning.

Next week, Stephanie M. Wytovich will drop by to talk about vampires, which you know, is one of my favorite subjects. Do you have a fragment you’re dying to share? Open a vein and drop me a line at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Fiction Fragments: Lynn Hortel

Lynn

Last week VM Burns stopped by to talk about writing and unfinished projects, and this week Lynn Hortel is here to share an abandoned horror story. I met Lynn at Seton Hill University while earning an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction. Like me, Lynn is a single mom who writes dark fiction inspired by her dark past. When Lynn submitted her fragment, she wrote:

This started out as a BDSM erotica experiment. Then I decided it would definitely be a short horror story. Then it got tossed in the fragment pile never to be looked at again.

This is not a Romance.

Look for Lynn’s debut  horror novel coming out next year.

Lynn Hortel has lived in several cities throughout the southwest. She never felt settled until she moved to Joshua Tree where she fell in love with the surreal landscape. At Seton Hill University she earned an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction, and Throwback is her first complete novel—partly written out in the desert, scribbled on notebook paper while surrounded by cacti. When she’s not writing, she enjoys hiking, stargazing, and wildflower viewing. She lives with her son and an Australian Cattle Dog named Richard.

Three Questions

Girl Meets Monster: When did you begin writing and why?

Lynn:  I wrote stories as long as I can remember, but when I was fifteen I wrote a short story for school, and the teacher told me she’d shared it with others, including the principal, and they all cried. It felt powerful to cause emotion like that. That’s when I knew I should be a writer.

Girl Meets Monster: Your fiction deals with dark themes, where does your inspiration come from?

Lynn: My dark and traumatic childhood provides the biggest inspiration, but not just that. Even if my early life had been idyllic, I’d be obsessed with the need to understand bad things. Part of it is a silly, superstitious belief that if I keep my eye on evil, I can protect myself and my loved ones. Plus, dark things are delicious.

Girl Meets Monster: What stops you from finishing writing projects?

Lynn: Things that a lot of people struggle with — fear of success, fear of failure, resentment that I can’t pour myself into a project the way I want to because I have to work, so why bother. I think one of the biggest things that defines successful authors is their ability to write through any circumstance, so I’m working on it. At the end of the day it just boils down to putting down the words even though my tired, overworked self would rather read someone else’s.

Not A Romance, by Lynn Hortel

Katy walked down the musty apartment complex hallway and descended several flights of stairs to the first floor. Then she paused in the stairwell to check her phone. Maybe Mr. Bishop had left a voice mail. I want to do the right thing, Katy. I tore up the contract. See you at work on Monday.

No messages on her glossy, black android. Just a text from the driver. Bishop’s driver waiting out front.

She felt a sudden, strong urge to pee but didn’t want to climb back up all the stairs to use the bathroom. She might not come back down. Just nerves. It’ll go away. Maybe the bladder pressure would distract from the dread.

In the smooth, white landscape behind the glass entrance, a long, black limousine sat parked in front of her apartment complex. The first snow of winter fell and dusted the vehicle in lacy flakes.

She paused, took a deep breath, and pushed the lobby door open. Cold air stung her cheeks.

The biting cold combined with anxiety made her lungs seize. Katy put the flat of her hand against her chest, coughed, and forced a deep breath. This is what her poor daughter felt like—this and much worse. Katy could follow through if she focused on the real purpose- to help Annie.

A short, stocky man with brown skin and a black beanie cap exited the limo and opened the door to the backseat. He gave her a nod, huddled in his long black coat, and rubbed his mitten clad hands together while he waited for her to enter.

Did he know the deal she’d made? “Hi,” she said.

“Morning.” He smiled and gestured to the open door. It beckoned her inside like a hungry mouth.

Her heart hammered. Frozen, her limbs wouldn’t move. Was that pity in his eyes? He looked like someone who might live in her building rather than a bank employee. This comforted her a little. Still, she’d be consumed by the time she finished this, swallowed and digested, never the same. Was she doing the right thing? It didn’t matter. Too late to back out.

The poor man must be freezing while he waited out in the cold for her to get in the car. If for no other reason than to relieve his discomfort, she willed herself forward a few steps, so he could get back inside and warm up. Her black, leather boots crunched in the dirty, fallen snow.

Mr. Bishop’s assistant popped her head out and waved. “Hi Katy. Hop on in and let’s go. You’re letting all the heat out.” She wore deep red lipstick, and her glossy, brunette hair in a twisted, complicated up-do.

Katy paused in the silent stillness. She hadn’t known she’d have an escort. Another person who knew the truth about this arrangement, but not the whole truth. “Oh. Hi, Diane.”

Diane said, “That’s all right. You get in whenever you’re ready. I’m going to close the door, though. It’s cold out there.” She disappeared back inside the black monster limousine and shut the door. The driver followed suit and started the engine but just idled.

For a few seconds Katy’s mind spun in a million directions for a way out of  this—for a solution that didn’t end in a potentially fatal lack of medical care for Annie—or else the terrible, looming, irreversible tryst with Mr. Bishop. But there was nothing she could do except ride this dark wave towards the inevitable. All that mattered was Annie’s health.

Decision made, her pummeling heartbeat mellowed to a dull thud. In a daze she opened the door, sat down, and shut herself inside the black beast. “Good morning.” She tried to act normal, although, there was nothing normal about this situation.

Diane returned her good morning with a warm smile and the whitest teeth Katy had ever seen. Her coat was deep, rich, emerald green, the color of money.

Katy hadn’t thought it possible, but her stomach clenched even more when the limo pull away from the curb and drove down the street. Don’t let me be sick. Please don’t let  me be sick.

They picked up speed and drove in silence for a while. Diane had told her not to bring anything, no clothes or toiletries. Everything she needed would be provided. Like prison—they go in and leave with the same single set of clothes and their personal items in a paper bag. Through the car window, buildings and street signs moved along and got left behind along with her low income neighborhood. Butterflies flapped their wings harder and harder inside her belly. Screw butterflies. More like pterodactyls. She smiled. When she’d asked Annie if she wanted a giant painting of a butterfly on her bedroom wall for her birthday, Annie asked for a picture of a dinosaur instead, so she’d painted a cool prehistoric landscape mural with flying pterodactyls that covered an entire wall in her bedroom. Annie wasn’t fragile like a butterfly. She was tough. Toughness ran in the family.

They pulled into the valet lane in front of a huge hotel in a wealthy part of the city Katy had rarely driven through—even though she’d lived nearby for years. Huge glass doors displayed a giant lobby with black and gold décor and a ruby red carpet similar to the one in the upstairs hall of the bank.

She clenched her teeth until her jaw ached. Why couldn’t he just give her a pass on her stupid money mistake out of the kindness of his heart? Obviously, he could afford it and spare everyone involved a hell of a lot of pain and suffering. If only he’d accept her offer to pay the money back in payments, but no can do. Now this had to happen. Of course she’d do everything she could to spare him the consequences, but for the most part, it was out of her hands. Boy, would he be sorry.

“Well, here we are.” Diane said. Two young men in black bow ties and vests opened their doors in unison and then stepped back so they could exit the limo.

Katy willed her body to get up, but she remained glued to the seat.

Diane stuck her head back inside the car and smiled her perfect red-lipsticked smile. “Are you coming?”

Katy swallowed. “I’m just going to stay here.”

Diane offered her slender, pale hand. Long, polished nails matched her lipstick. “Come. It’ll be all right.”

No, it wouldn’t. But Katy sighed, took her hand, and exited the limo. The prescription bottle filled with sleeping medication rattled inside her backpack. For mercy’s sake, she hoped she’d brought enough. Mr. Bishop was built like a behemoth.

The driver drove the limo away and disappeared into the parking garage. They entered the hotel through the giant glass doors.

Dressed in a black and red uniform with gold embellishments and a ridiculous cap, the bell hop greeted them with a nod. “Hello, Ms. Diane.” He leered and winked at Katy with brown eyes that shone with a maroon glow. His jaw lengthened. He smiled with a mouth too wide and revealed broken, yellow teeth mottled with brown stains.

Katy looked down and away. It’s starting. No, his eyes must reflect the red carpeting somehow.

A portly man with a salt and pepper beard played a grand piano. Amongst red square pillars from floor to ceiling, men in suits talked to skinny, beautified young women at small, round tables with what looked like cocktails in front of them. Maybe they were virgin. It was early for alcohol, and the girls appeared too young.

Katy felt out of place in her thrift store jacket, Levi’s, and uncombed, wavy brown hair.

Diane introduced her to the satanic bellhop whose face had somehow returned to normal. “This is Katy. She works for Mr. Bishop.” He extended his respectful welcome.

All three of them entered the elevator. Katy did not look at the bellhop but listened to him banter with Diane in a mild, friendly tone of voice about the new, snowy weather. She must have imagined the red-eyed grin. Anticipation had her seeing things. He sounded nice enough. As long as she didn’t look at his face, it would be okay, but she knew, just knew if she looked at him again, his eyes would glow red.

The door created hundreds of years ago by ancestors she’d never met was already opening.

Red lit numbers rose all the way to the top floor. When they exited the elevator, instead of the usual endless row of doors that led to cookie cutter rooms like in motels. the hallway revealed only one set of huge, ornate double doors.

They walked down the long hallway towards the entrance all the way at the end. Katy’s heart pounded so loud and hard, she thought Diane and the bellhop must hear it. She smelled something—like burnt matches or sulfur, but she kept moving forward with cold, leaden limbs.

“Here we are,” Diane said. She knocked on the door and entered without waiting for an answer. “He’s expecting us.”

Katy had everything under control for so long. How had the world spun so far off its axis in just the last few weeks? She followed Diane inside.

Next week, Patricia Lillie and her alter ego, Kay Charles, joins Girl Meets Monster to talk about the benefits of recycling your abandoned fiction. Got some unfinished fiction you’d like to share? Comment below or send it to chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Fiction Fragments: Jennifer Loring

JennLoringLast week I introduced a new blog series, Fiction Fragments, in which I will share abandoned writing projects. Each week, a different writer will be featured. You’ll learn a little bit about their writing process, you’ll learn a little bit about them, and get a chance to read some of their unfinished work.

This week, I welcome my good friend and fellow writer, Jennifer Loring. I met Jenn during my first MFA in Writing Popular Fiction residency at Seton Hill University. She was one of my first critique partners and I always looked forward to reading the pages she sent me. Since then, we’ve visited a haunted penitentiary, attended horror writing conventions, and talked about our shared love of vampires over many beers.

Jennifer Loring’s short fiction has been published widely both online and in print, including the anthologies Tales from the Lake vol. 1 and vol. 4 and Nightscript vol. 4. Longer work includes the novel Those of My Kind, published by Omnium Gatherum, and the novella Conduits from Lycan Valley Press. Jenn is a member of the International Thriller Writers (ITW) and the Horror Writers Association (HWA). She holds an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University with a concentration in horror fiction and teaches online in SNHU’s College of Continuing Education. Jenn lives in Philadelphia, PA with her husband, where they are owned by a turtle and two basset hounds.

Three Questions

Girl Meets Monster: What inspired this fragment?

Jenn: It was a long time ago, but I believe it was inspired at least in part by a Velvet Acid Christ album cover. Music is always a huge inspiration for me. The general concept was, as you can probably tell from the title, a dying man’s dream. However, this particular man is about to be executed.

Girl Meets Monster: What kept you from continuing with the story?

Jenn: Mostly because I felt I couldn’t do justice to the idea in my head. Which is something we all deal with throughout our careers and something I’ve learned to work through, but I was still fairly young at this point—26 or so, I think—so I didn’t have the confidence in my writing that I’ve gradually built up since then.

Girl Meets Monster: Do you know how this story ends?

Jenn: Great question! I honestly have no idea. I’ve kept it for almost 15 years, so I guess I had the intention of finishing it at some point. His being executed would be too obvious, so maybe he would get a last-minute pardon?

Last Dream of a Dead Man, by Jennifer Loring
The mattress damp with fluids not his own huffed as he sat up and peered at the dirt-encrusted floor beneath him. A dim light came from somewhere, perhaps the same place as the voices that crawled through the walls and into his ears like hissing cockroaches. Liquid puddled in the corners of the room. Too dark to tell if it was water or blood.

Wake up, the voices screamed inside his head. He pinched himself. Awake. He did not know where he was, though the cell looked vaguely familiar.

The girl rolled into his room in a wheelchair, sewing a new leg onto the stump of her left thigh. Both arms and her right leg bore stitch marks made of heavy dark thread. She was the same as that night when he’d taken her, with the pink headband in her long blond hair. “Are little girls made of sugar and spice and everything nice?” she asked him, the needle diving in and out of the leg she held with her other hand. He wondered whose limbs they were or if, being a child, she even cared that they didn’t belong to her. “Or are they made of flesh and blood like everyone else?”

He looked down and found his arms and legs lying in a red pool, the remaining stumps spurting an alarming amount of blood. The girl laughed maliciously and he remembered. He had told her that he wanted to see what little girls were made of. No one ever found her arms and legs, and he never told. “Where am I?” he asked.

“The Needleman is coming. No one will weep for you.” She smiled with a cruelty particular to children, tucked the needle and thread into the pocket of her dress, and wheeled herself into the corridor.

He told himself to move his limbs and they, attached to him again, obeyed. He walked to the door to follow her, but she had vanished into the darkness. Flies coated the bloodstained walls, a living and moving black paint, an ever-shifting shadow. Metallic clanks of doors slamming shut echoed through the hallway. The voices whispered but he did not understand, or didn’t want to.

He felt the stares of invisible eyes upon him and ran to the end of the hall; he pushed open a set of double doors and stared up at the sky. All the stars were gone, and the moon’s huge infected eye spilled bloody light onto the dead grass, staining his clothes and hands. He turned back to the doors. They had become a brick wall.

Ahead of him, the little girl wheeled herself out of the shadows. Beside her, walking on the insides of her feet because he had fractured her ankles, was his favorite. She was the first, and he’d told her to be very quiet. Now a rusted zipper stretched across her mouth so she could not scream, but he imagined the little girl would do the talking for her. In her television eyes flickered images of her grieving parents, her suicidal fiancé, her two younger sisters robbed of their idol. Then flashing video loops of a snuff film worse than any fantasized by even the sickest mind. Each murder, there in her eyes, each moment captured by the camera lens of her pupils.

“Tell us why you did it. That’s all they ever wanted to hear. And if they believed you, they might have kept the Needleman away. Maybe they still can. Go on, you can tell me.” The girl leaned forward, feigning profound interest.

He stepped back, startled. Was that all they really wanted? Was that what could save him? No, he didn’t believe it. She was tricking him. He had no reason to trust her.

“Go on, tell me. Maybe the nightmares will go away. Maybe they’ll save you, and the nightmares will never come again.”

“You’re lying. What’s in it for you if I tell you?”

“Peace. It’s what you want, it’s what we all want. Hurry! The Needleman doesn’t like to be kept waiting!”

“Leave me alone!” He ran into the dark, with the disembodied little-girl voice chasing him.

“We’ll never leave! Not in this life and not in the next! We’re all yours now―you wanted it that way, remember? All yours now.”

He stopped running when both girls blocked his path, wherever it might lead. The tall girl who was once beautiful unzipped her mouth, and a swarm of maggots squirmed out, dropping onto the grass at her feet.

Next Friday, B. E. Burkhead will share some of his poetry fragments here at Girl Meets Monster. Would you like to submit your unfinished writing and talk about what stops you from finishing certain projects? Comment below or submit your fragment to me at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!