Fiction Fragments: Gemma Files

Last week I wrapped up my month-long celebration of black women horror writers for Women in Horror Month/Black History Month with an interview with Zin E. Rocklyn, a.k.a. Teri Clarke. If you haven’t had a chance to read all of the interviews I did last month, take some time and and get caught up now. These women have a lot to say about writing horror while black and female and how their personal experiences and intersectionalities have an impact on what they write about.

This week, Girl Meets Monster is back to business as usual, with a fragment and an interview with Gemma Files.

Formerly a film critic, journalist, screenwriter and teacher, Gemma Files has been an award-winning horror author since 1999. She has published four collections of short work, three collections of speculative poetry, a Weird Western trilogy, a story-cycle and a stand-alone novel (Experimental Film, which won the 2015 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel and the 2016 Sunburst Award for Best Adult Novel). She has a new story collection just out from Grimscribe Press (In This Endlessness, Our End), and another upcoming.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Gemma. Thank you for taking time to chat with me a bit. Tell me about your newest collection of stories, In This Endlessness, Our End. Is there an overarching theme, or threads that connect the stories? Are all of the stories new, or are there some reprints? How do you decide which stories to include? Did you have a plan in mind when you started the collection?

GF: So, the funny thing is that as it turned out, all the stories in this collection were essentially written—finished, at any rate—within the time-period from about a year before Trump’s election to almost the end of his (hopefully only) term in office. The fact that they were originally intended to be published by my former home imprint, ChiZine Publications, which suddenly and acrimoniously collapsed in November of 2019, is also interesting, in hindsight; so is the fact that Jon Padgett at Grimscribe chose to pick the book up during a global pandemic. Which means that the overarching theme of all these stories is the sort of fear you feel when the world you think you know tilts on you in a way which only seems “sudden” at the moment it happens, as well as the guilt and grief which come when you realize you saw [this, whatever “this” is] coming from miles away, and simply chose to ignore those warning signs as they mounted because…well, because you wanted to. Because you liked your life, and the illusions it was rooted in. Because you hoped things had gotten better, and you forgot that every ten years, a generation comes of age who haven’t lived through the same things you have, so they have to have experiences which will prove the same basic facts about human nature over and over and over again. Etc.

It’s easy to say, of course, that the theme of every horror collection is fear. But I do find it oddly significant that the first story in the TOC—“This Is How It Goes”—happens to be set during the aftermath of a body horror plague that rips around the world like a creepypasta come true, moving from urban myth/internet rumour to immediate reality within forty-eight hours at the most. When I read it on The Outer Dark Podcast recently, I called it a “pre-pandemic post-pandemic tale.” So, these particular stories ring with a very current sort of fear, for me. Whether other people will see it that way as well is up to them, I guess.

The stories are all reprints, basically, though because I often get published in fairly obscure places, I expect that a lot of them will be new to most readers aside from those solicited by people like Ellen Datlow (“Cut Frame,” from her Hollywood Horror anthology Final Cuts; “The Puppet Motel,” from Echoes: The Saga Anthology of Ghost Stories). And no, I didn’t have this in mind when I put the book together, it just shook out that way. The one thing I have in common with the Joker is I’m not much of a planner.

GMM: So, you mention that you’ve written a story-cycle and a Weird Western series. What is the difference between a story-cycle and a series, and how does your process change from project to project–short stories versus stand-alone novels versus a series, etc.? Do you decide on what shape your stories will take before you write them, or do the stories evolve into the appropriate length to fit the story as you write them?

GF: The Weird Western series—my Hexslinger books—basically filled in a three-act, chapter-driven narrative over three separate novels. I’d made an outline at the very beginning for what I thought would be one book (A Book of Tongues), only to find that by the time I’d written 100,000 words I’d only gotten to what was fairly obviously the first break-point; I kept to that outline throughout, moving through it linearly, as if I was writing a trilogy of screenplays. The story-cycle, on the other hand—We Will All Go Down Together: Stories of the Five-Family Coven—was built around a base of stories reprinted and slightly polished from earlier in my career, ones which inhabited an urban paranormal universe I only slowly realized was anchored by the same cast of characters, all of whom were literally related to each other. I sprinkled them through in non-linear order, introducing those characters and the five families they belonged to as I went, while also writing/finishing four new novellas that made these connections clear and brought the overall story to a climax. I like to call it my Alice Munro book, except with evil angels, witches, monster-killing nuns and the Fae.

As for whether I made either of those decisions strategically…yeah, not really. Sometimes I think the only method I have for knowing if a story is finished is: “Does it feel ‘right?’ Okay, then.” I do know that with the Five-Family Coven stuff, I essentially wanted to prove to myself that polite, clean Toronto, Canada could be just as dark, weird and potentially awful as any other city written about from that angle by one of its citizens. It started out as what I called my Toronto Dark phase, then got more and more complicated, like a bunch of in-jokes which grew legs and started to walk on their own. And even now, I still continue to use that universe as the back-story of a lot of my more recent tales; a minor character from We Will All Go Down Together plays a main role in “Cut Frame,” for example, plus a minor role in “The Puppet Motel.” It’s there if you look for it. 

Otherwise, the shape of a story is usually dictated by the voice of the person who’s telling it, or the perspective of the person who’s living it. My plots are often a little more complicated than they need to be, but I don’t believe that plot and character can be completely separated. It’s not just “this happened,” it’s “this happened, because someone did something.” As Bill Duke says in Menace 2 Society, speaking for/to almost all my protagonists, “You know you fucked up, right?”

GMM: Why horror? What draws you to the genre? Have you written in other genres? What do you like most about horror as a writer? As a reader? After winning the Shirley Jackson Award, did you automatically feel like a bonafide horror writer, or do you still struggle with impostor syndrome? Has winning awards changed you as a writer?

GF: A deep and sparkling darkness has always been what draws me towards the things I love, at least in terms of art. I mean, I started out ostensibly liking science fiction, but soon figured out A) what I liked was actually space opera, because B) I’m really not that great with science, outside the purely biological. Also, my formative life was full of fear, so horror seemed like “home” to me…normal, natural, understandable.

Part of my journey after my son was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder was coming to realize that if a diagnosis of Asperger’s had been something people were looking for (in girls, or at all) back when I was at my worst as a kid, I might well have gotten one. I’m 52 now, so I’ve worked very hard to pass as neurotypical, but most of my life has been spent second-guessing my own instincts and berating myself for being born somehow “wrong.” The fact that that alone doesn’t make me super-different from a lot of other similarly diverse people isn’t lost on me, either; I’ve gotten away with a lot over the years, on account of reading as a typical cishet white lady. But again, I think it still has a lot to do with me feeling as if horror is the place where all the non-default people can meet, a place where becoming or realizing you’ve always been what most people see as “a monster” might not be such a bad thing.

“…horror is the place where all the non-default people can meet, a place where becoming or realizing you’ve always been what most people see as “a monster” might not be such a bad thing.”

I spent my high school years reading Tanith Lee, Peter Straub and Clive Barker, my university years reading Caitlin R. Kiernan, Billy Martin (then Poppy Z. Brite) and Kathe Koja. My favourite movies were things like Nightbreed and Near Dark, stuff about found families bound together by hunger rather than affinity. And all of this stuff came together in my writing, which from the very beginning was dictated by the old adage that if you can’t find what you want in the world, you may well be forced to make some. One of the things I’ve become very proud of, over the years, is the idea that I’ve somehow indulged or inspired other people doing the same thing, giving way to their own ids/needs and letting the devil drive. Someone told me once that my story “Kissing Carrion” told her it was okay for women to do that, and I was like: “Oh, the story about a woman who makes a puppets out of a human corpse so she can fuck her necrophile boyfriend with it, while the ghost that used to be the corpse hovers nearby invisibly going WHAAAATTTT?!? Cool!” I’m down for monster pride in any and every form.

Winning the Shirley Jackson Award for Experimental Film was a huge surprise, but that was also absolutely the award I knew I’d be happiest winning, because I’ve never pretended to be anything but a horror writer. Even my fantasy is always “dark”; even my nonfiction is always Weird. As Yukio Mishima put it, my heart’s yearning has always been to night, and death, and blood. But yeah, imposter syndrome truly doesn’t go away. I fight it by writing to a deadline, writing like it’s a job, and never fooling myself into thinking that the stuff which comes out of me is somehow so pure and beautiful it doesn’t need to be cut, tweaked or otherwise rewritten. Things can always get better, and an outside eye is a gift.

500+ WORDS OF SOMETHING NEW

Gemma Files

One thing a job like mine teaches is that people will say all sorts of things when they’re dying. It’s like the process breaks something open inside them, some long-buried infectious reservoir, a quick-draining sick-pocket. They don’t even have to know what’s happening, let alone accept it; they might still be entirely convinced they’ll survive, but it doesn’t matter. A sort of punch-drunkenness takes over, an irrepressible urge to confess.

 “I put my hand under the pillow, and that’s where I found it,” Mrs Camp told me, one morning, as I stripped her mattress so I could check it for night-sweat and all sorts of other fluids. “Then it bit down, so I couldn’t get it out again.”

“Found what, ma’am?” I asked, only half-listening. Wet bedsheets I could deal with; did, almost every day, and hardly just with her. It was sponging down the rubber mattress covers that always took up the most time, because we had to move the clients while they dried; bleach on urine never is the best smell, and it does tend to stick around. Some of (the bulk of) the lazy fools I worked with would just stick whoever they’d cleaned up for back in bed immediately, ignoring the fact that bedsores don’t react any better when crossed with cleaning product than feeble lungs do when exposed to corrosive funk. But screw it—no matter how much I longed to get shed of this job, I was determined to at least be a little better at it than those assholes.

“A mouth, wide open, like I said already. With teeth.”

“Well, that doesn’t sound good,” I told her, to which she smiled, revealing her own teeth.They looked like a busted-up china doll’s.

“No, it does not. Are you married, Kevin?”

“KeVon, ma’am. And no.”

“Oh, that’s a shame, then—big, good-looking fellow like you. I bet you’ve made a fair deal of women cry, in your time.”

Probably, I thought, the faces of all those poor girls I’d “dated” in high school suddenly coming back to me in a weird sort of flip-book flash, fluttering across my inner eye before breaking apart against the hard bone bell of my skull, disappearing into darkness. But not ’cause I wanted to, no, ma’am. Only ’cause I wasn’t strong enough yet to know who I really was, let alone to say it. 

“I do try not to, ma’am,” I told her, angling her wheelchair next to the flower-pots where I knew she liked it best. Those gardenias, heads bent over and dripping, plumped up fulsome on the very edge of decay. You could just see her faded eyes light up at the sight of them.

“Beautiful,” she told me. “Oh, Kevin. There’s still a whole lot to love in this world, isn’t there? Even now. Even here.”

“Yes, ma’am, there sure is.”

She nodded, sunk in thought. Then whispered, almost to herself, as I was turning back to see what might or might not yet be on offer from the kitchen: “But then the sun goes down and the lights go out. Then I go out, and they come in.”

At that last part, my heart gave a strange little leap, tapping itself against my breastbone like it was knocking on some door hid inside my chest. “Who’s that, ma’am?” I asked her, standing there with my hip thrown out so awkward it hurt, but not quite able to go on to my next step ’til she replied.

(God only knew, the membrane between sleep and death certainly did seem to stretch thin enough to see things through, sometimes, in life’s very last stages. Things you shouldn’t be able to see, under more normal circumstances.)

Mrs Camp just kept on staring at those damn flowers, though, like she was waiting for them to speak instead. “Oh, nothing at all, I’m sure, Kevin,” was all she said, at last. “Must be I’m being silly—mixing stuff up. Old people do that, you know.”

“Yes ma’am,” I agreed. “And young people too, on occasion.”

She nodded and lowered what she had left for lashes, then threw me a glance I’d’ve surely called flirty if she weren’t terminal, and knew herself to be so.

“Mmm-hmm,” she said. “That’s surely true.”

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.

Women in Horror Month Fiction Fragments: Nicole Givens Kurtz

Earlier this week, Girl Meets Monster kicked off Women in Horror Month with a post about horror fanatic Dimi Horror whose social media platform is Black Girls Love Horror Too. And, on Wednesday, I had the chance to chat with horror writer and soon-to-be filmmaker, Kenesha Williams. Today, Nicole Givens Kurtz shares a fragment of her fiction and talks about her writing process, current projects, her role as editor for Mocha Memoirs Press, and what it’s like to write horror while Black and female.

Nicole Givens Kurtz is an author, editor, and educator. She’s a member of Horror Writers Association, Sisters in Crime, and Science Fiction Writers of America. She’s the editor of the groundbreaking anthology, Slay: Stories of the Vampire Noire. She’s written for White Wolf’s Vampire the Masquerade 20th Anniversary Anthology, Bram Stoker Finalist in Horror Anthology, Sycorax’s Daughters, and Serial Box’s The Vela: Salvation series. Nicole has over 40 short stories published as well as 11 novels and three active speculative mystery series. You can support her work via Patreon and find more about her at http://www.nicolegivenskurtz.net.

About A Theft Most Fowl: Sent to investigate the theft of a sacred artifact, can Hawk Tasifa unravel the threads of the conspiracy before it destroys the Order?

Following her success in Gould, Hawk Prentice Tasifa returns to her university to unravel a mystery. Someone has broken into the Museum of the Goddess and stolen its most sacred artifact, attacked two of the guards, and is trying to frame her mentor. Under pressure from The Order, Prentice is urged to find the culprits, but not all is as it seems.

Can Hawk Tasifa see through the echoes of her own past and find the dirty birds before they destroy everything she loves?

Ten Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster and thank you for being part of my first Women in Horror Month series, Nicole. What projects are you currently working on? Is horror your primary genre, or do you write in other genres? If you write in other genres, which do you feel most comfortable writing, and why?

NGK: I am currently working on a science fiction mystery/futuristic noir series called Fawn & Briscoe. I write primarily in science fiction/fantasy mysteries, but horror is a close second. I feel most comfortable in mystery and horror genres, although I have written contemporary and paranormal romance.

GMM: When did you first know that you were a horror writer? How did you develop an interest in the genre? What initially attracted you to horror stories? Which writers influenced you then? Which writers influence you now?

NGK: I realized I was a horror author after I wrote my first scary story in 10th grade. It involved a Thanksgiving dinner gone horribly wrong. I fell in love with the horror genre when I was 4. Where the Wild Things Are was the first horror book I read, and it remains one of my favorites to this day. I graduated to King in elementary school along with Poe and then to others later in life like Shirley Jackson, L.A. Banks, and Tananarive Due.

GMM: Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019) explores Black horror and the portrayal (and absence) of Black people in horror movies. As a definition of what Black horror means begins to take shape, Tananarive Due says “Black history is Black horror.” What do you think she meant by that? Can you give an example of how this idea shows up in your own work?

NGK: So much of Black American history has been absolutely horrific from being enslaved to the Reconstructive Period to Jim Crow to the Civil Right Movement to the era of Black Lives Matter, living as an African-American in America is to be constantly enraged (Baldwin), but also a witness to the real monsters of the world–mankind. I draw much of my horror from those marginalized spaces that depict the true depravity of racism and the monstrous nature of white supremacy. For example, in many of my weird western stories, the protagonist is a Black woman in the west. The combination of freed slaves and disgraced Confederate soldiers in the southwest/west both seeking new identities and opportunities among scarce resources create a hotbed of horror stories…some very close to the truth.

GMM: As a WOC/Black woman writing horror/dark speculative fiction, do you feel obligated to have a deeper message in your stories? Can writers of color write stories without broader messages about identity, class, and racism? Is it possible to divorce yourself from that ongoing narrative within our culture when you set out to write a story?

NGK: I don’t start out writing stories to incorporate a deeper meaning or message; however, since most of my stories have Black women or POC women as protagonists, issues of identity, class, and racism appear because they are very much a part of our reality. It is difficult to divorce the effect those things have on me, as a person, a Black woman, a Black mom, etc. I can only speak for myself, but it is not something I can do with my storytelling. Because those items affect me, they affect my heroines.

GMM: What are your top five favorite horror movies, and why? Top five horror novels? Which book or movie scared you the most?

NGK:

Top 5 Horror Movies:

  • John Carpenter’s The Thing (original): The shapeshifting nature of The Thing and the paranoia amongst the crew are expertly done and continues to be peak awesomeness today.
  • A Nightmare on Elm Street (original): As someone who suffers from insomnia since I was a child, this movie scared me to death. Exhausted and yearning sleep, the fact that something in my dreams could hurt me in real life completely terrified me.
  • Midsomer: The beauty of Midsomer is that it lures you into a false sense of security with its brilliant sunlight, welcoming community members, and gorgeous grounds, until WHAM! It all goes topsy turvey in ways I could not have foreseen or predicted. Stunned. It bears multiple repeat viewings, too.
  • The Girl with All the Gifts: Zombie. Black Girl. Doesn’t give one iota about humanity. Straight. Up. Insane. Love it!
  • Event Horizon: I probably should’ve led with this one, because it is my favorite of the lot. Awesome if not over the top acting. Crazy blend of science fiction and horror. A real wild ride. Just good scary fun. I have to watch it every time I see it on TV. Sometimes I just watch it to relax or if I want to see a good horror film. I also liked how a Black man was in charge and not killed in the first 10 mintues.

Top 5 Horror Novels:

  • Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley: I have multiple copies of this book and I taught it to high school seniors for 8 years. I still​ love everything about it and I still find wonderful themes on narcissism, abandonment, hubris, beauty, wealth, misogyny… the list goes on. It is a treasure.
  • The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor Lavalle: This is a retelling of Lovecraft’s The Horror at Red Hook, his most racist story.  Lavalle takes the story and subverts it. It is simply astounding.
  • The Dark Tower by Stephen King: Most of my horror lands in the weird western subgenre, and this was the first one that not only captured my love for blended genres but presented a gunslinger unlike any I’d seen before. Roland and his ka-tet continues to be my favorite book series ever, but it also produces difficult and horrific situations. Terrible situations and consequences for everyone, Roland included.
  • We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shriley Jackson: As a person who often sees herself as an outsider, this book of two sisters, ostracized from the town, and a tiny bit from each other, showed me that horror didn’t have to be bloody and messy. Human beings are monstrous enough, and the way Kat traps her sister and imprisons her scared me to death. It showed me the dangerous power of love.
  • Minion by LA. Banks: The Vampire Huntress Legend Series was the first time I saw an authentic black woman slayer and I absolutely loved every single minute of this series. It didn’t frighten me so much as entertained me, while also centering blackness, which I loved.

GMM: How do you feel about white-identifying writers who write stories about non-white characters? What problems have you encountered? What potential issues do you see with white-identifying writers telling BIPOC stories? What advice would you give those writers?

NGK: K. Tempest Bledsoe and Nisi Shawl have a fantastic workshop and courses on Writing the Other. If white authors want to diversify the characters in their stories, I encourage them to do so. The potential issues are with not centering the non-white character’s culture as being a part of them. For example, Black characters are not monolithic, there’s diversity with different experiences, rearing, and education. However, there are certain cultural touchstones that aren’t advertised or communicated. I would give writers who are seeking to write the other to do the following: 1) write the character and make them as round as you would your white character. 2) Get two or three sensitivity readers to read over your story (Pay them please. This is labor.). Listen to their feedback and incorporate those changes into your revised story. Non-white authors should note that basing a character on your one BIPOC friend, is still tokenism. Try to expand your social group to a variety of different people to avoid stereotypes, tokenism, and offensive behavior in the story.

GMM: All writers have experienced some form of impostor syndrome. What has your experience with impostor syndrome been like? Did you ever have a particularly bad case of it? If so, what caused it and how did you manage it?

NGK: My imposter syndrome should start paying part of the mortgage! I had a terrible case of it at Blacktasticon in 2018. I was selected to moderate a panel that included Sheree Renee Thomas, Linda Addision, Kenesha Williams, Susana Morris, and an overwhelming number of Black women authors. Linda is a legend. Sheree Renee Thomas is a legend. Susana Morris is an amazing academic professor and author. These are REAL writers.

What the hell did I know about questioning them or leading these leaders in a conversation?! I managed it by writing out the questions with the intention that if they didn’t like it, they would go their own course, and I would let them. LOL! There were 10 people on this panel, and if everyone had a chance to talk, I may not need all the questions. I was prepared to, but I didn’t need to worry. The panel went well.

GMM: Congratulations on being awarded a Diversity Grant from the Horror Writers Association. If you don’t mind me asking, how do you plan to use the grant? What goals do you have in mind?

NGK: Thank you! I plan to use my grant to attend StockerCon for networking possibilities as well as take a MasterClass with Neil Gaiman course to improve my craft.

GMM: How long have you been the editor of Mocha Memoirs Press? Do you prefer editing to writing, or vice versa? How did you get started as an editor? Do you perform and other roles at the press? How can interested writers find out about calls for submission?

NGK: I have been the editor and owner of Mocha Memoirs Press for 11 years. I prefer writing! I got started editing others when I taught English for 18 years in public school. I am the owner of the press so I have assisted in all areas of the business: slush reading, edits, proofreading, formatting, marketing, etc. Interested writers can find the call for submissions at https://mochamemoirspress.com/write-for-us/.

GMM: What about your writing makes it unique within the horror genre? Are there any subjects you’re afraid to write about, or stories you avoid telling?

NGK: My tagline is Strong Heroines. Fantasy Worlds. In the horror genre, I primarily writer weird westerns and as a Black Woman, that is very rare. There are subjects I don’t write stories about and those are slavery, rape, and incest. Those are topics that I don’t find tasteful, and so I don’t write about them. I am aware that horror has a tendency to push the envelope of those things we fear, but those topics fall outside the range of what I want my work to focus on.

Excerpt from A Theft Most Fowl: A Kingdom of Aves Mystery ©2020 Nicole L. Kurtz

The University of Sulidae was the oldest college in Aves. Originally, its location resided in the Audubon Nest, close to Lanham, home of The Order. Political infighting forced the intellectuals to put some distance between themself and those at court. Experience taught them that the closer one got to power, the harder it was to survive. In response, The Order opened an intelligence file on university members. Despite the history of hurt feelings and tensions on both sides, many of those within The Order’s rank traveled and studied at the university’s new location in Sulidae Egg, in Edmonds Nest. It sat on the banks of the Plume River at the apex of the Audubon and Edmonds nests. The campus was its own island in the egg; everything revolved around the university.

Rook Bjorn Renner’s entire life orbited around Sulidae University, most importantly the Museum of the Goddess. As curator, Rook Renner’s true passion to which his entire life was devoted was collecting goddess artifacts. As a renowned expert in all things goddess, he received a consistent stream of requests to verify and validate recently discovered treasures. Over time, his teachings gained more urgency around authenticity.  

Prentice found it strange that a devoted bird like Rook Renner would steal the Five-Feathered Crown. Why now? Why only that artifact? Why not something less obvious? He wouldn’t be able to get birdsong for the relic. No one would take the risk of being caught with it. No one would dare touch the crown for fear of death.

The theft didn’t add up.

Hawk Prentice Tasifa sat on the train speeding from Gould to Sulidae. She picked up Cardinal Wick’s letter and read it again.

Hawk Tasifa-

Your services have been requested in the Sulidae Egg. Arrive within two days and greet Dove Raz Haq. The situation as we know at this time:

1. Missing sacred goddess’s feathered crown.
2. Proposed magical use.
3. Possible suspects: Rook Bjorn Renner

The truth is light. Bring it forth as hawks see what is unseen.

Peace,
Cardinal Wick

She rolled the parchment up again.

Someone did break into the museum and they stole the Five-Feathered Crown. In the ensuing massive manhunt, the eagles who served as security for all eggs, searched but came up empty. Request for assistance from the public produced nothing, according to the reports. No doubt, Rook Renner was frantic with worry and he stood accused of stealing it himself.

Prentice sipped her tea as ideas formulated in her mind. Drinking Earl Grey became a simple pleasure among the stickiness of investigative work. The ancient cogwheel train raced across the rails, and it gently rocked as it chugged its way through the Edmonds Nest. She’d left the Bailey’s rolling hills and the Adams Mountains with their snow-capped tips. They grew smaller in the distance along with Bailey Egg’s red-roofed buildings.

Now, two days later, she meandered along the Adams River. She missed Gould, and if the circumstances changed, she’d return again, but not for work.

Ahead, Sulidae Egg appeared. Prentice had the sleeping car to herself, an ornately decorated car whose features included carved, wood paneling, pressed metal ceiling, frosted glass, lamp oils and a night seat which folded down for a bed. Over the last couple of days, the car had started to feel like home. She sat in the small, overstuffed chair and removed her notepad.

When not on an active investigation, Prentice wore casual clothing; her dark wings identified her as a hawk no matter what she wore. Today she had chosen a sapphire headdress which bore silver embroidered wings and matched her frock. A silver, satin scarf draped from her neck across her left shoulder. She put away the boots in exchange for flat, closed-toe sandals. Sulidae lay in the Edmonds Nest, just southwest of Lanham. The weather remained warm throughout the year due to the Avian Sea currents. She dressed accordingly, but only by chance. Unable to return home from her last assignment for a change of clothes, Prentice happened to have packed cooler clothing.

Her thoughts turned to Rook Renner. No doubt, the rook sowed the seeds of his own demise with his erratic behavior.

The train bumped over the railroad tracks as it slowed into Lizard Mountain Train Station, with the setting sun. A whistle announced their arrival and Prentice disembarked with her luggage and satchel. As soon as the heat hit her, she missed the cool mountains of Gould. Along the platform, coachmen carried signs advertising their services. She secured one and found herself quickly seated in a carriage, her luggage bags secured outside in the rear, her driver holding the reins in front. Two beautiful horses pulled them away from the train station and into the waiting night.

In what seemed like no time, she reached campus. Being early suppertime, the egg bustled with life. Students clutched heavy satchels and walked or bicycled through the streets. People clustered together in casual conversations at outdoor cafes, illuminated by votive candles. Pedestrians hiked alongside cyclists with ease in a practiced rhythm.

In the hushed carriage interior, Prentice embraced the nostalgia rushing over her. She hadn’t been here in years, not since graduation. Outside the carriage window, the Plume River glistened as it snaked its way through the egg. A clear sky put the constellations on display, and she warmed at the memory of nights spent in Rook Ioan’s astronomy class, charting and memorizing the heavens, gazing through telescopes, and listening to how they came to be. A hawk was never lost as long as they had the sky.

“We’re here.” The coachman wrenched open the door and disappeared around to the carriage’s rear. He clambered up the short ladder and threw down her luggage bags. They smacked the ground.

“By the goddess, be careful!” Prentice bellowed as she exited. Vultures!

The coachman came back around with said baggage stuffed under both arms. He glared at her as he placed the bags beside her. His tight, grayish skin bore thin scars. The bright scarlet birthmark across his sharp nose drew attention away from his dark beady eyes.

“Thank you.” Prentice took five birdsongs from her leather punch. She dropped the copper coin with the five emblazed on the tail and the goddess’s likeness on the front into the coachman’s gloved hand.

“Evening.” The man bowed, his face softened by the tip, before leaping up to the driver’s seat. His agility surprised her; his girth didn’t hinder his movements at all.

She turned her attention to the pristine cathedral that consumed the center entrance of the university campus. The air was heavy with the fragrance of frankincense and sage. A cobblestoned maze of dark corridors threaded through the grounds and connected the buildings. Dark hallways stretched out in a monolithic maze of nooks and crannies, making it impossible to take in the enormity of the university at a glance.

Ahead, a figure approached through the growing dark. Brightly colored lanterns illuminated the square and entranceway. She could make out the red turban atop a head. A sudden strong wind billowed his dark robes. Prentice didn’t need her hawk abilities to recognize Rook Renner. Her jaw tightened as he advanced.

Once the wizened old man reached her, he wasted no time embracing her.

“Hoot, Prentice.” Renner pulled her close.

His voice was stronger than Prentice expected.

She returned his hug but pulled back. “Hoot, Rook! How are you here? Shouldn’t you be in a cell?”

Rook Renner’s jovial face held bemusement. He didn’t seem distraught. “It would seem my rapidly eroding reputation has kept that action at bay.”

His rawboned features, decorated with broad red lines beneath each eye and a vertical one from his forehead down to his chin, disappeared beneath a bushy white beard.

“Come. I’m glad you’re here.” He clasped her hand in his bony one. The soft flesh palm spoke to the rook never doing physical labor in his life.

“Me too.” She meant it.

He motioned ahead. “I’ve had a small instructor apartment set up for you.”

Prentice took back her hand. “An apartment? Rook, you know I’m here to investigate you and the theft…”

She trailed off. A quiver filtered through her feathers.

Rook Renner raised his hand. The silver rings he wore caught the pale moonlight as he held his hand up to silence her.

“I’m aware. It’s a studio, nothing luxurious. The Order cannot say I attempted to bribe you. My status may not be what it once was at court, but I’m greatly injured at this intrusion. The sooner we get this resolved, the sooner I can get back to my work.”

“Rook…” Prentice’s cheeks warmed at his words.

But she didn’t travel here to rekindle their student-instructor relationship. She’d been assigned to this case and she had a job to do.

See the unseen.

She adjusted her satchel across her torso and then hoisted her luggage.

“Lead the way.” Rook Renner smiled. “Follow me.”

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

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

Women in Horror Month Fiction Fragments: Kenesha Williams

Monday, I kicked off this month-long series of posts for Women in Horror Month and Black History Month and had the chance to chat with serious horror fan, Dimi Horror. If you haven’t had a chance to read that post, check it out.

Today, Girl Meets Monster welcomes horror writer and soon-to-be filmmaker, Kenesha Williams.

Kenesha Williams is an author, screenwriter, speaker, and Founder/Editor-in-Chief of Black Girl Magic Lit Mag a speculative fiction literary magazine. As an, essayist she has written for, Time Magazine’s, Motto and Fireside Fiction. She is also a screenwriter currently in pre-production on a horror web series and a short film. You can catch up with her on her website www.keneshaisdope.com

Ten Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster and thank you for being part of my first Women in Horror Month series, Kenesha.  What projects are you currently working on? Is horror your primary genre, or do you write in other genres? If you write in other genres, which do you feel most comfortable writing, and why?

KW: Thanks for having me! I’m currently working on a proposal for a one-shot comic that’s a Zombie Western, it’s really exciting and a great opportunity to show how racially diverse the West actually was in the 1800s. I’m also writing a pilot script for a contemporary horror series that I like to think of as Insecure meets The Magicians. Horror is my primary genre, even when I try to write another genre, I usually throw in horror elements, LOL! I also write science fiction, urban fantasy, and mystery. Since I can’t help but throw some horror into most of what I write, I’d say that horror is the genre I feel most comfortable writing in.

GMM: When did you first know that you were a horror writer? How did you develop an interest in the genre? What initially attracted you to horror stories? Which writers influenced you then? Which writers influence you now?

KW: I think I knew I was a horror writer when I couldn’t write something without someone dying, LOL. My mother was a big horror fan, so I read from her stacks of books and got into the genre myself. She also took me to my first horror film, so she definitely influenced my love of horror. My initial influence was Stephen King because my mom was a big fan, so his were the first “adult” horror novels I read. I would also be remiss not to add in R. L. Stine with his Fear Street series and Christopher Pike’s YA horror novels as well.

When I was in my early twenties, I went looking for horror authors that looked like me and I found Dark Dreams: A Collection of Horror and Suspense by Black Writers. That collection introduced me to Brandon Massey and Tananarive Due. Then I started buying everything they put out and got put on to LR Giles (Lamar Giles) as well. Then that search lead me to Octavia Butler, who I had read, but her Patternist series, which was Science Fiction, because my mother had it in her library. But then I started to read her horror with Kindred and Fledgling. Finding all these new to me authors had me wondering, where had they been all my life and also like, hey we do write horror!

GMM: The documentary, Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019), explores Black horror and the portrayal (and absence) of Black people in horror movies. As a definition of what Black horror means begins to take shape, Tananarive Due says “Black history is Black horror.” What do you think she meant by that? Can you give an example of how this idea shows up in your own work?

KW: I believe the phrase Black history is horror means that our history in this country (the United States) has been one that’s been marked by horrific acts like the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the years of enslavement for our people, and of course the legacy of Jim Crow that we’re still fighting against. We can mine any of those moments in history for horror stories. 

The work I’ve done so far deals with the legacy of Black history in America and how it manifests today, though it is not always the source of the horror. For example, the story you’re featuring today I wanted to explore the idea of the reconciliation of the horrific past Black Americans have endured with the present climate, i.e. replacing statues of white slave owners with more progressive figures.  My main character believes that the changes that are being made are just lip service, and I think that’s a feeling that a lot of Black people can identify with. President Obama was voted in with the slogan of Change, but then his successor was a harkening back to the bad old days. It showed that a good portion of the country didn’t want change, in fact they wanted to Make America Great Again by returning to a time when whites were in power and minorities knew their place.

GMM: As a WOC writing horror/dark speculative fiction, do you feel obligated to have a deeper message in your stories? Can writers of color write stories without broader messages about identity, class, and racism? Is it possible to divorce yourself from that ongoing narrative within our culture when you set out to write a story?

KW: Often that is my biggest question, does everything I write have to have a deeper message? I don’t think I can write a story without infusing identity in it when I write Black characters, it’s not realistic to me to disregard identity. Black people are not a monolith, of course, but there are some experiences that I believe are universal. But I also want Black people to have genre literature that is fun without it having to be an issue book. So, I try to balance that. There are some of my stories that the horror ties back specifically to race, and then there are others where the horror is just horror with Black main characters. 

GMM: What are your top five favorite horror movies, and why? Top five horror novels? Which book or movie scared you the most?

KW: OMG, this is so hard. Okay, first I’m going to go with the horror movies that shaped me growing up:

  • Pet Sematary—This was the first horror movie I saw, and my mom took me to it. I couldn’t have been more than 11 because we were still living in Germany. My mom loved horror and had a sick sense of humor, so she kept making the slashing the ankles motion to me, scaring the bejesus out of me.
  • The People Under the Stairs—I probably watched this around the same age. I think this movie stuck with me because it was the first movie I saw where people were being cruel to children and as a child; I was just like, wow could this really happen. Also, it was the first horror movie I saw with a Black protagonist. I heard that Jordan Peele is remaking this movie and I’m excited to see what he does with it.
  • Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween—These two were my introduction into slasher films, which I still love. I mean, they’re classics for a reason.
  • It Follows—I know people either love or hate this one, but I loved the atmosphere and the idea of an apparition spreading like an STD was innovative.  

Top five horror novels in no particular order and exceptionally hard to narrow down:

  • Firestarter—I am a big Stephen King fan, and this was the first book of his that I read, borrowed from my mother at thirteen years old.
  • The Goode House by Tananarive Due—This was a “freezer” book for me, I had to put it on ice for a while so I wouldn’t freak myself out reading it. I’m a fan of the Haunted House subgenre of horror and I really loved this one. I am also a big Due fan and will read anything she puts out, so it was hard to narrow it down.
  • Thunderland by Brandon Massey—Another freezer book, this is a really atmospheric novel that made me look over my shoulder several times. 
  • Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix—This was hard because I’m a big Grady Hendrix fan and I really love all of his books for different reasons. The sad thing is I couldn’t say My Best Friend’s Exorcism because I didn’t finish it because it was scaring the heck out of me. So, I put it back in my TBR pile. I need to finish it. But Horrorstör was amazing because he took a setting that most people don’t see as scary and infused the everyday horror of working retail and doing repetitive, seemingly pointless tasks, with the supernatural underpinning of a haunted store. 
  • Night of the Mannequins by Stephen Graham Jones—This is a new favorite of mine. I don’t want to spoil anything because it has a nice twist, but let’s just say it’s weird in wonderful ways and if you like slasher-who’s next to die types of books, then you’ll enjoy this.

GMM: How do you feel about white-identifying writers who write stories about non-white characters? What problems have you encountered? What potential issues do you see with white-identifying writers telling BIPOC stories? What advice would you give those writers?

KW: I don’t have a problem with it if the white writer has done their research, doesn’t rely on stereotypes, and doesn’t act like their non-white character is just a white character with a tan. And I’ve seen it done well and I’ve seen it done marginally well, and I’ve seen it done poorly. A criticism I have that I see that happens a lot is that they’ll make the character disconnected from “Blackness” and I’m guessing that’s because they don’t really know what it’s like to be in community with Black people. We are never in isolation even if you live in a predominately white area, so if your character has no family to talk to or connect with or if they don’t have any friends of their same race, it makes me think you haven’t done your research. The advice I’d give is for the writer to ask themselves, why do you think your character should be non-white and why should you tell their story. Bonus question: Are there own voices writers telling this story, and would your time be better spent amplifying them? Nothing hurts more than a white identifying writer getting praise for writing something similar to something a POC has already written.

GMM: All writers have experienced some form of impostor syndrome. What has your experience with impostor syndrome been like? Did you ever have a particularly bad case of it? If so, what caused it and how did you manage it?

KW: OMG, yes. Every time I sit down to write. So, my bad cases have been at conventions. I am a big fan of both Grady Hendrix and Paul Tremblay, and I got to be on panels with both of them. I was like OMG what am I doing here, does anyone want to hear what I have to say, etc. etc. I had to call my husband, and he was like, Babe they asked you there for a reason you’ll do great. And he was right, I got asked for a reason and I ended up having a great time on both panels and both Grady and Paul are just really amazingly nice people, so that was even better. They say, never meet your heroes, but I can say that everyone I’ve met in the horror community has been just great, so I’m lucky.

GMM: Aside from writing, what other contributions are you now or have you made to the horror community, or to other speculative fiction communities?

KW: Aside from my own writing, when I created Black Girl Magic Lit Mag in 2016, I created a platform to amplify other WOC’s writing in the speculative fiction genre. It’s one of my proudest accomplishments. Currently, I am part of several FB groups for diversity in speculative fiction and I use those to amplify other voices and encourage other WOC to join the community.

GMM: Has social media helped in getting you noticed as a writer? What has worked for to date? What hasn’t worked? What advice would you give new writers who are trying to build a social media following?

KW: Yes, social media has definitely helped with getting noticed. I feel like it’s a necessary evil because sometimes I don’t want to be “on” and also, it’s a distraction. I can spend so much time on social media and not realize that all these incremental check ins add up to HOURS. 

What hasn’t worked for me is Twitter, in terms of selling anything. I think people don’t go to Twitter to buy; they go to talk, and so it’s not a good promotional tool in terms of direct selling. I think Twitter is good for showing your personality if you want people to be interested in YOU, not necessarily your work.

I think the best advice I’d give to new writers is to use social media to get people to your mailing list because that’s something YOU OWN. Social media platforms owns the audiences on their respective platform and if for any reason you’re kicked off the platform or you just want to be a bit of a recluse you can’t take that audience with you, even if you garnered a million fans, if you don’t own that list it can all be taken away. Instead of traditional social media I think the best way to gain an audience is through websites like Prolific Works or Book Funnel, that unlike social media, aren’t free, but give you ways to build your audience through group promotions with other authors in your genre.

GMM: What are you reading right now? What else is at the top of your TBR pile? What classic horror novel have you secretly never read that you think everyone else has?

KW: Right now, I’m reading Death by Dumpling: A Noodle Shop Mystery by Vivien Chen and The Writing Life: Reflections, Recollections, and a Lot of Cursing by Jeff Strand. Also on my TBR is:

  • Dying With Her Cheer Pants On: Stories of the Fighting Pumpkins by Seanan McGuire
  • The Lodestone Puzzle by Lynn Emery, I preordered it and it arrives on my Kindle on Feb. 16th
  • The Bluesman: Lady of the Grave – it’s a comic based on the horror-adventure novels THE BLUESMAN by Stuart Jaffe, Illustrated by Garrett Gainey, with character design and production by John Jennings

I’m also reading a lot of screenplays because I’m writing a couple right now.

OMG, someone’s going to take away my Women in Horror badge because I’ve never read any of Shirley Jackson’s work. I’ve seen most of the film/tv adaptions of her work, but I haven’t read the books. I’m going to put The Lottery at the top of my TBR.

SERVED COLD by Kenesha Williams

“If you don’t hurry, we’ll be late.”

This didn’t push Trisha any harder to finish getting ready. Only one of them was excited about going to the naming ceremony, and that was only because Ella wanted to see Brent. Trisha didn’t care what they renamed her high school as long as it wasn’t another dead racist. The whole thing seemed like a farce, anyway. They didn’t change the name because they thought it was wrong. They changed it because of public pressure and then finally because someone had in the middle of the night toppled the slaveholder’s statue in front of the school.

Ella walked out of the bathroom to find Trisha lounging on her bed in the same position she’d been in when she left the room, “If you don’t want to come, just say so.”

Ella and Trisha were Irish Twins only eighteen months apart and with Trisha held back–red-shirted–a year because of her emotional immaturity they were in the same graduating class. No one ever mistook them for real twins, however, because Ella was white and Trisha was Black. Or biracial, if you were being technical.

Both of their dads were really involved, and they each called the other’s biological father, Dad, as well as their own. They couldn’t be happier if they lived on a commune, but instead of a commune they lived in a charming house at the end of a cul-de-sac with their Aunt Ginny, who had no children, save them.

“I’m coming. I just don’t see the big deal.”

“It’s history! Who would have thought they’d change the name? EVER. And I bet they choose a person of color or at least a woman.”

Ella was the eternal optimist, but it was easier for her to be. She wasn’t the one who had been stricken with anxiety and a panic disorder since she was eight. The doctor said it was a reaction to their mother’s sudden death, a kind of PTSD. Whatever it was a reaction to, it was hell on Trisha.

Trisha and Ella made their way to the crowd and found a group of their friends. All the kids had pushed to the front, while most of the parents and other adults hung back. There was a new statue in front of the school, and a drop cloth covered it. The signage for the school hadn’t been adhered yet to not give away the surprise, but they had a man in overalls standing in a scissor lift waiting for the signal to begin screwing in the metal letters.

“I wonder who it will be?” Gemma, their shared best friend, stage whispered to them while they stood elbow to elbow. Gemma was wearing something impractical as usual, a crinoline skirt with gym shorts underneath, rubber boots, and a tank top that had a picture of Garfield on it. It was darling. On some people it would be an insane look, but Gemma could make anything work.

“Probably another dead guy that no one remembers.” Trisha replied.

Ella rolled her eyes and then stood on her tippytoes, surveying the crowd. “Have you guys seen Brent?”

Trisha and Gemma traded a look. Sometimes it was like they had ESP. They knew things about the other, even when they were nowhere near each other. Trisha never said it out loud, but she felt closer to Gemma than she did her own sister.

Gemma didn’t have anxiety like Trisha, but she’d been in therapy for a couple of years dealing with her own issues. She’d had an eating disorder in middle school and her parents put her in in-patient treatment for an entire semester. When she came back, she was a healthier weight, but some of the light had gone out of her eyes. Trisha knew what that felt like.

The principal and the mayor made their way out of the school and stood in front of the crowd. They had erected a small podium for the occasion, and the mayor looked at it hungrily. Mayor Collins had opposed renaming the school, but when he realized that all of his constituents weren’t as backward as he was, he changed his tune.

Trisha wondered what meaningless platitudes he’d espouse once he stepped up to the mic.

A gush of wind picked up and teased the bottom of the drop cloth, threatening to unveil the surprise before the mayor. Trisha wished they could get on with it and just announce the damn thing. What were they waiting for? 

The wind played with the drop cloth again, and it looked as if the statue underneath were moving. The cloth undulated in ways that seemed to defy natural physics. It was like someone was trying to free themselves from the shroud of the cloth. Trisha rubbed her eyes, wondering if her meds were playing tricks on her.

Of course, she’d had to pop a few to get through this debacle. Any event with more than a handful of people could trigger an anxiety attack that would sideline her for the rest of the day. These weren’t new meds and she shouldn’t have been seeing things, but she swore someone or something alive was under the cloth and not a statue of brass or concrete.

She looked at Gemma to see if she noticed anything strange, but Gemma was busy snapping pics for her social media. Trisha looked around to see if maybe Ella saw, but Ella had slipped away, probably to stand near Brent. It was the whole reason they were out here, anyway.

This time when Trisha looked at the statue, she clearly saw a foot step forward. So she wasn’t surprised when she heard the first scream from the crowd as the statue jumped down from its perch, cloth still over its head, and rushed over to the mayor.

As the statue ran, the cloth slipped away, revealing that it was a rendering of Nat Turner, of the infamous slave rebellion. It was probably a mistake to have made his likeness holding a sword because the now animate object used it to thrust straight into Mayor Collins’ rotund belly.

The screams got louder as the crowd realized what was happening. Trisha watched the blood drip from the sword and thought to herself that she was so glad she hadn’t missed the naming ceremony. She was going to have to find and thank her sister for bugging her to come.

Once everyone stopped screaming and running.

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 Friday!

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

Fiction Fragments: Matt Betts

Last week, K. Ceres Wright joined Girl Meets Monster to talk about how writers of color can foster support for other diverse writers and become mentors for young writers. This week, Matt Betts is here to share a fragment, talk about his influences, and the benefits of writing fan fiction.

40645515_267465454090059_5099031125666299904_nMatt Betts grew up on a steady diet of giant monsters, robots and horror novels. The Ohio native is the author of the speculative poetry collections Underwater Fistfight and See No Evil, Say No Evil, as well as the novels Odd Men Out, Indelible Ink and his latest, The Boogeyman’s Intern. Matt loves to travel and speak at writer’s conferences and workshops. He lives in Columbus with his wife and their two boys.

He can be found at www.mattbetts.com, on Twitter as @Betts_Matt and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/mattbettswrites/.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome, Matt. So, tell me about your fragment. What was your inspiration?

MB: This is a story I wrote a little over ten years ago. It’s a SciFi western that I really enjoyed writing. It was called a few things, but the final title was “Where It All Went Wrong.” This involves a ship with a crew of three, rather than the larger crew of the Serenity, but as the writer, I was really into Firefly and other space westerns at the time.

GMM: I love Firefly! So that totally sounds like something I would read. Why did you abandon it?

MB: Well, I’ve always meant to come back to it and rewrite it now that I feel a little more sure of myself, so I guess I can’t call it abandoned completely. But whenever I’ve circled back and reread it, it feels so much like Firefly fan fiction. Funny thing is, the story was accepted by two different magazines/webzines, but both went out of business before the story made it to print. I got a little scared it was a jinx and worried anyone I sent it to would fold as well. But I still really enjoy it and maybe I’ll consider expanding it, and cleaning it up, into a novel one day.

GMM: There’s often a certain level of stigma associated with writing fan fiction, but sometimes writing fan fiction can help you overcome writer’s block on another project, and in the highly improbable case of E. L. James, fan fiction can turn into a series of best-selling novels. Have you written fan fiction that you later developed into an original work of fiction?

MB: Writing fan fiction can certainly help with writer’s block, but it can also help with writing in general. I mean, if someone wants to get started as an author, but has no idea how to do it, writing fan fiction can help. With fan fiction, a writer already starts with characters they know, background, and a familiarity with the genre. Writing stories based off of that would be a great start for any aspiring writer. The pressure to create certain elements is off, so they can write character sketches, backstories, whatever. I’ve often heard that writing is like a muscle in that the more you work out (or write) the stronger you get. Any novice writer should practice writing in any way they can. Their work will improve and eventually, they might want to strike out and feel confident to do their own original work.

I’ve never done any fan fic myself, not knowingly anyway. The scrap I’ve provided today really ended up feeling like Firefly, but I never felt it until the story was done, edited and submitted. I didn’t set out to write about Mal and Jane and the crew of the Serenity, I set out to write a space western, and that’s what came out. I think since then, I’ve found my voice and style as a writer and I can avoid inadvertently drifting into someone else’s territory, or properties, a little better. Early on as an author, I tried to write in what I thought was Stephen King’s style, but the stories were my own originals, not based off of his stories or characters. And they were terrible. It took a few years for me to feel like I wasn’t copying off someone else’s paper as a writer.

I guess I’ve never tried to write fan fiction, really, and it might have helped me to learn story and structure a little sooner if I had. I can see how writing Star Wars or X-Files stories would have set me up for better storytelling earlier. Both have science fiction tropes, action, and strong characters — all things which play a prominent role in my work today.

Where It All Went Bad, by Matt Betts

Mason stared at the keypad next to the barn’s side door. The readout showed the security system was disabled and he hadn’t even touched it.

“Boss? We’re holding at the safe point, but we haven’t got a lot of time. What’s going on?” Bess’s voice came through his earpiece. “Are you inside or what?”

He pushed the door and it swung open with a creak. He sighed. Alarm turned off and door wide open? “Yeah. I’m in. Give me ninety seconds to start the roof’s retraction sequence and bring it in.”

“Can do.”

On a job like this one the unexpected was never welcome, especially after they had planned it so well. He pulled his sidearm and closed the door behind him. He paused next to a crate to let his eyes adjust to the low light.

Outside, the thumping of small explosions suddenly filled the air. “Looks like the town folk started their celebration a might early.”  Bess’s voice again filled Mason’s ear.

“Who can blame them? The festival of fruit only comes once a year,” he whispered.

Bess laughed. “Harvest celebration, genius.”

“Right.”

Mason scanned the building for any sign of life and found nothing; no movement, no sound. He could see a few crates here and there, some frames on the walls, a set of fuel pumps and, of course the ship in the center of the building that he’d come to take. He darted to the other side of the ship where the door control console was and began tapping in codes.

“On the way.” Bess said.

The crack of the overhead door coming to life drew Mason’s gaze upward and the light of the night sky began to creep in, punctuated by the occasional flash of fireworks. In the new illumination he could see his target much more clearly. The ship had been through a lot, and showed the scars of its long years of service; a scorch mark here, a cracked panel there. It was only about eight feet tall and three times as wide, it was designed as a one-man explorer, but two could fit in it easily.

“Thirty seconds.” Bess was right on time. “Secured yet?”

“Working on it,” Mason said “Take it easy.” He holstered his gun, walked to the nearest wing and set the lifting rigs before moving to the other wing and the craft’s nose. He took a minute at the front to lay his hand on the ship and feel its cold metal. He ran his hand along the letters that spelled out the ship’s name – Palomino. He smiled and nodded. “Nice to meet you.”

The retractable ceiling door clanged open to its limit and again, Mason’s eyes drew upward. He saw the clear night sky momentarily before it was blotted out by the underside of his ship.

“We’re here,” Bess said.

“No kidding?” The bay door of the ship opened and Mason could see the silhouette of the third member of their crew, Eli Fisher, feeding out the winch lines.

“Hey boss!” Fish’s voice yelled through the speaker in Mason’s ear. “Any problems?”

Mason grabbed the first line as it made its way down to him and attached it to starboard wing. “Not a one.” He attached the other two lines and checked them carefully. One last look around the barn made him marvel at how easy it had been. His stomach rumbled a little. “Not a one. Haul us up.” He stepped onto the ships ladder and grabbed hold of a rung for dear life as the Palomino was pulled up roughly off the ground.

“Sir?” It was Bess. “There seems to be a large crowd of angry folk headed our way in a hurry. We’d better move out and finish hauling you in later.”

Mason looked down at the building that was rapidly moving away from him. He’d nearly cleared the roof and could see the open sky. A flash nearby made him wonder if the fireworks were still going on, or if someone was shooting at them. The Palomino began to twist on the lines and Mason squeezed the rung tighter. “Uhm. Are you sure we don’t have time to haul me in?”

“Don’t be yellow. We’ll be to safety in two shakes. Fish? You may want to strap yourself to something.” Bess said.

Mason’s stomach churned again. “Wait! If he needs to strap in, what about me?” It was too late. Bess had already steered the ship sharply back in the direction it’d  come. More flashes burst nearby “Just fireworks. Just fireworks.” He hugged the craft and pressed his face against its cold exterior.

Next week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes a mystery guest. Stay tuned!