Shayla The Perfect

Last updated on: Published by: Amanda Ross 0

June 18, 1890 

The carriage stopped in front of the Institute and it was just as Minerva predicted – the police would rush to the scene of the crime, spurred on by the accusations of twenty-one hysterical girls. 

 

“They tortured us!” cried Ruth, showing off a string of burn marks on her arm. They were self-inflicted but the inspector balked when Ruth said it was punishment for not showing proper respect.

 

“Yes, and they locked us in our closets every day!” Martha wailed. She was pale by nature, which lent credence to her story of being trapped in darkness for six months. 

 

Anna kept her eyes downcast, just like Minerva told her. She was to claim she had been especially targeted, that she’d been bullied and beaten more than the others. 

 

“What about you, Miss?” The inspector asked her. He lifted his lamp and rested his other hand beneath her chin. She looked at him now, her left eye nearly swollen shut from Ruth’s punch.

 

“Jesus Christ!”  

 

“Who did this to you?” Asked another inspector. There was doubt in his eyes, and Anna knew that it was up to her to extinguish it. She knew it’s what Minerva would want, knew that it would secure her position as a Perfect Woman. She pulled her nightgown over her head, exposing the bruises and bite marks on her body. Some of them she made herself, but the other girls did the most damage. After all, it was Minerva who drove the gold-tipped dagger into Anna’s stomach just before the police arrived. 

The inspectors gasped. Blood seeped from Anna’s stomach. She was sweating and her legs were weak, but Anna was determined to do what Minerva urged her to do.

 

She would be the saving grace of the Cult of Poseidon. Mustering all her strength, she said:

“It was them,” she pointed towards a group of teachers and staff. At the center was the headmistress of the Windsor Forest Institute, Mrs. Caraway.

 

Her fierce green eyes stared at them from beneath bold, black eyebrows. “She’s the one who stabbed me. Please, don’t let them get away with what they did to us.”

 

Anna’s legs buckled and she fell to the ground, her head smacking on the concrete. Minerva was by her side, holding her hand and stroking her hair. She looked at Anna, her green eyes vibrant with appreciation. To the police she shouted “help!” and “those monsters killed an innocent girl!”

 

To Anna, she whispered: “You’ve done it, my Perfect Woman. Your sacrifice will not be in vain.”

 

Anna smiled and her vision blurred. It felt like she was falling into a deep sleep. She hoped that when she awoke she’d be rewarded, and that Minerva would be there, ready to take her hand and lead her home. 

 

 

 

Present Day

Shayla tapped the yellow flashlight against her palm, chiding herself for not bringing enough batteries. Did she think she was some kind of superhero who could see in the darkness? 

 

Way to go, dummy, she thought.

 

There was no moonlight to illuminate her way to the Institute, and she doubted there would be any lights in the old, dilapidated building ahead of her. 

 

The Windsor Forest Institute was a large, four-story house. Two separate wings jutted forward from the left and right of the main building. A balcony sagged in front of the second story. Even in the darkness, Shayla could see the missing sections of the balcony, like missing teeth.

She shivered and walked up concrete steps to the front doors.

 

Two massive, wooden doors greeted her harshly. Shayla gulped and placed a hand on the door handle. It was cold and slightly damp to the touch and she held her breath as she turned the handle. Maybe it’ll be locked. Then I won’t have to go—

 

The door opened with a groan. Shayla’s heartbeat quickened. As she pushed the door open, she saw a note sitting just inside the foyer. She pressed her lips together and bent over to pick up the small slip of paper. 

 

Shayla- 

Congratulations. You’ve been chosen to become one of us. 

To complete your initiation, you must take a walk through the Windsor Forest Institute, stopping on each floor, going to each room marked with a trident. Each room contains an item that will describe the background of the Institute, and what happened here over one hundred years ago.  

Find the clues, follow the path, and you will be rewarded.  

As ever, 

Molly 

 

Shayla folded the note and slid it into her jeans pocket. She looked up at the Institute, taking in its enormity. She turned to look behind her, shining her light on the woods that hid the Institute away from the world.

 

I could just turn back. The note would be proof enough that I came, she thought. She sighed her breath a cloud before her. She knew Molly and the rest of the group would know the truth: that she was too scared to even take a step inside. They’d call her a chicken. They’d never talk to her again, leaving her to her loneliness. Leaving her to walk the halls of Chatham High alone.

 

“You can do this, Shayla,” she murmured. 

 

She took a step inside. The door closed behind her with a thump, and Shayla jumped back, stifling a scream. After several moments of quiet, she exhaled and shone her flashlight around the room. 

 

The Institute was as grand as she expected. Marble floors stretched out before her and crystal chandeliers hung in a line from the ceiling. Twin staircases hugged the left and right walls, joining on the second-floor landing, where a large bay window let in some moonlight. 

 

There was a room to the right of the entrance. Shayla turned towards it, shining her light upon the door. A large trident was carved in the center. She stretched out a hand, running her fingers along the smoothly carved lines. 

 

She pushed the door open, half expecting to see a ghost standing just beyond the door. But the room was empty. It looked like a dining room, a long dust-cover table dominating the space. At the far side of the room was a fireplace, the mantle still sturdy despite its chipped paint. 

 

A large painting hung above the fireplace. In it, a group of people sat staring at the camera. Though the photo was black and white

 

Shayla could see how immaculately they were dressed. All dressed in black, the men with mustaches and cravats and the women with buns pinned at the top of their heads. The woman in the center was the most striking. Her dark hair contrasted with her pale skin and her light eyes were life-like, the kind of eyes that would follow a person’s every move. 

 

Shayla looked around for the clue that would lead her to the other room. A grand piano sat to the left of the fireplace. She flashed her light over its ebony body and saw a white bag with a red trident resting on the top. She reached out for the bag but thought the better of it. What if it was something dangerous?

 

If I don’t do this, Shayla thought, I’ll never be initiated, and kiss any chance of making friends goodbye.

 

She sighed and grabbed the bag. It felt light in her grip. She set the flashlight down and opened the bag, spilling its contents onto the top of the piano. It was a white nightgown. Dark spots littered the front of it. Shayla winced when she realized they were bloodstains. A note stuck out from the top of the bag. 

 

Shayla-  

You found your first clue. Well done.

Girls from all over the country were sent to this institute with the hopes of becoming perfect women. The class of 1891 had 53 members. After a massacre on June 18, 1890, only twenty girls survived. This dress belonged to Anna Quinn. Her death was responsible for ensuring that people were persecuted for the massacre.  

As ever,  

Molly 

 

Shayla dropped the dress onto the piano. She’d never heard about the massacre in any of her classes. Was it some sordid bit of local lore that was off-limits?  

 

A creaking sound made Shayla turn towards the door. There was nothing there. She hesitated before grabbing the note, slipping it into her pocket, and tiptoeing towards the door. She cast one last glance towards the painting and the woman with the light eyes. Eyes that she swore bore straight into her back as she left the room. 

 

She stepped out into the foyer. That creaking sound again, but Shayla couldn’t place it. Her temples throbbed. She felt a knot forming in her stomach, hard and vibrating. The dining room door slammed. Shayla yelped and ran up the stairs in front of her, the wood groaning beneath her. 

 

Only one of the rooms in the right-wing was marked. She walked down the hall, passing room after room. Each door had a brass name tag, and the marked door had the names Minerva Hall and Olivia Von Maur. 

 

Shayla opened the door, uncertain of what she’d find. 

 

The room was more modest than she expected. Two beds sat on either side of the window. A nightstand sat between them. On the wall near the door was a desk, and on the opposite side stood an armoire. 

 

Shayla blanched when she didn’t see a bag in plain sight. She swept her flashlight around the room but saw no such bag. She looked under the bed, in the desk drawer, beneath the nightstand. Finally, she stood before the armoire and cringed. 

 

“Get it together,” she chided herself. She grabbed the handles and opened the doors. The bag hung behind cobwebs and musty dresses. This bag felt heavier than the last. She dumped the contents onto the bed. There was a candelabra, five candles, and a lighter. Another note fell out of the bag. 

 

Shayla- 

Clue number two. The Institute was led by a woman named Eleanor Caraway, the first female headmistress. She was known for her beauty and for running a tight ship. It’s believed that Eleanor and a group of teachers went rogue one night and killed most of their students. The survivors were said to escape death by holding up in this room. 

As ever,  

Molly 

 

Shayla was still, her mouth dry but her palms sweaty. Had it been Eleanor in the photo downstairs, the one whose eyes seemed to follow her as she moved around? If Eleanor had been crazy enough to murder her students—

 

The flashlight died. She hit it against her palm again, but the batteries were toast. She had to use the candles now. She set the candelabra down on the nightstand and felt around in the bag for the candles, her hands still shaking.

 

Once the candles were secure on the candelabra, she lit them. The light cast an eerie glow as the flames danced in the air. Shayla decided to press on to the left-wing.  

 

There were no marks on any of the doors, but she was stopped by a photograph near the stairs. At least a hundred people posed, all in dark clothes and with somber expressions. More than half the women wore a small pin in the shape of a trident, the same symbol on the doors and bags.

 

Below the photo was the inscription: “The Perfect Woman Institute Class of 1891. Cultum Poseidon.”  

 

She scowled as she read that last part. Cultum Poseidon? Cult? 

Shayla was being watched. She felt it. She heard another creak from behind the closed door to her left. As she rounded the steps to the third floor, she saw that the dining room door was now open. 

The third floor’s layout was the same as the second. The first door on the right was marked with a trident.

 

Shayla recalled the words “Cultum Poseidon.” She knew that Poseidon was the god of the sea in Greek mythology and that he carried a trident. Were there really people who worshiped him? Was the Institute really a cult? Was Eleanor trying to initiate the girls? She must have killed the ones who wouldn’t comply, Shayla thought.  

The marked room belonged to Anna Quinn and Martha Tilby.

 

Once again there was no visible clue, so she searched the room. As she looked beneath the bed she heard the sound of footsteps, the swish of a dress passing by. The butterflies in her stomach rattled around at sonic speed. 

 

The bag was beneath the pillow of the bed on the right. In it was a single object: a gold-tipped dagger. Etched into the silver handle were the initials E.C. The customary note was tied to the handle.  

 

Shayla- 

Clue three. This is the dagger used to kill Anna Quinn. Eleanor and five others were tried, convicted, and hung for their crimes. They were revealed to be members of the Cult of Poseidon, a secret order that worshiped the sea god and who believed that the sacrifice of a pure soul would lead to prosperity. The women of this order were called Perfect Women, as they seemed to be more graceful, intelligent, and blessed than all the rest. 

As ever, 

Molly 

 

Shayla’s hand trembled as she held the dagger up to examine it. Her head pounded and she wanted nothing more than to drop the candelabra and the dagger and run down the stairs and out into the night, loneliness be damned. But instead, she sat on the bed, a cloud of dust rising into the air. How could six people murder more than thirty girls? What happened to the ones who survived? 

 

A door slammed somewhere in the Institute. Shayla squealed and nearly dropped the candelabra. She tiptoed across the room and stood by the stairs. Footsteps echoed on the marble floors in the foyer. 

 

She ran up the stairs, taking them two at a time. These stairs led to a long hall with only a handful of rooms. At the end of the hall was a room with a big, red trident on the door. Shayla wavered. Did she really want to see what was on the other side? 

 

Footsteps again. She heard a creaking sound and guessed that the person was walking up the staircase. She stood rooted in place for what seemed like forever.

 

A door opened and closed within seconds. Shayla covered her mouth as she heard the stairs to the third-floor creak under the footfalls of whoever, whatever was down there.

 

It was now or never, and she knew it. She ran towards the door at the end of the hall and flung it open.  

 

Five people stood in a circle wearing white-hooded robes with a large, red trident on the back.

 

Candlelight cast an eerie orange glow about the room. They had been chanting something but stopped the second Shayla opened the door. The one standing with her back towards Shayla lifted its head and turned towards her slowly. Shayla flattened her body against the wall, her heart beating so loudly she thought they’d all be able to hear it.

 

From beneath the hood, large green eyes peered at her mischievously. 

 

“Welcome, Shayla.” 

 

“Molly?” Shayla asked.

 

“What…what is this?”  

 

“What does it look like? It’s your initiation. Might I say, you’ve done very, very well. Found the clues in record time. It took Ginger twice as long.” Molly motioned towards the petite blonde standing on the left. 

 

“Why are you doing this? Why couldn’t I have just… pantsed a freshman or something?” Shayla said.

 

Molly shook her head and tsked. “Shayla, Shayla. You don’t get it do you?”  

 

Molly paused, canting her head to the side. Deep down, Shayla knew what she would say.

 

“We’re the Cult of Poseidon,” Molly said. The butterflies were gone and were replaced by nausea so acute, she nearly fainted.

“But I thought… they were killed—”

 

“Oh, yes, they were. But only because they refused to see things Minerva’s way. See, Minerva knew that sacrifices had to be made in order for the Cult to really be successful. She argued with Eleanor.” Molly walked towards Shayla.

 

“But, Eleanor wouldn’t listen. So, Minerva recruited twenty loyal girls to follow her. Eleanor and the other teachers wouldn’t stand for it.” Molly spat. “Minerva decided to do away with the Institute altogether. When some of the other girls found out her plans, they told Eleanor.” 

 

Molly walked to the table beside the door. She picked up a tall silver canister and held it out to Shayla.

 

“Potassium chloride,” Molly said. “She poisoned them, and blamed it on Eleanor and the teachers.”  

 

“How could they believe them? They were just kids!” Shayla said. 

 

“Why not? Minerva and her followers were very convincing. What really sealed the deal was Anna’s death. She was killed with Eleanor’s own dagger.”

 

Shayla looked down at the dagger in her hand, at the initials E.C. Eleanor Caraway. A deluge of tears fell from Shayla’s eyes. 

 

“What do you want from me?” She wheezed. 

 

“To be a part of us, don’t you see? With us, you will prosper. You can have anything you want, have all your dreams come true. Don’t you want to belong, Shayla? Isn’t that why you came here?” Molly said. 

 

Shayla wiped her tears with her sleeve. She did want to belong, God, did she. She didn’t want to eat lunches by herself at school. She didn’t want to be made fun of or bullied. Didn’t she deserve this? To have friends? Be a part of something bigger than herself?  

 

“What do I have to do?” Shayla asked.  

 

Molly smiled. She grabbed the candelabra from Shayla’s hand and turned her towards the door. She kissed Shayla’s ear and whispered:  

 

“There was another girl who came here tonight. She’s the one walking towards the door right now. All you’ve got to do is kill her, and you’re in.”   

 

“What?” Shayla balked. 

 

Molly’s face hardened. “Kill or be killed, Shayla. That’s it. If you don’t kill her, she’ll kill you, believe me. She’s even more desperate for friends than you are.”  

 

Molly pushed her towards the door.  

 

Shayla swallowed hard as she heard the door knob turn. The door opened and Shayla was upon her, cutting and slicing and stabbing. There was no time to scream for help, or beg for mercy. Soon, the girl stopped moving.

 

Shayla sobbed, agonizing over the blood that covered her body. 

 

“You did it,” Molly said, coming to her side. She took the knife from Shayla’s hands. “You did it, Shayla. Now you are a Perfect Woman.” 

10 Badass Women Of History

Last updated on: Published by: Amanda Ross 0

Powerful women should be celebrated all year round, but this International Women’s Day is especially important to highlight them. Though history books are filled with the deeds of powerful men, women rarely get the same shine. That’s why I’ve put together this list of ten women whose deeds deserve to be more widely recognized.

 

Enheduanna – The First Published Author

This Akkadian woman is considered the first author to be known by name. She was the daughter of Sargan of Akkad and was the first woman to serve as the high priestess of the temple of Sumer.  Enheduanna is credited with developing the “paradigms of poetry, psalms, and prayers,” which are still in use today. Her three hymns, Inninsagurra, Ninmesarra, and Inninmehusa, are thought to have instrumental in providing context to the Akkadian gods under Sargon’s rule and helped “provide religious homogeneity.” Enheduanna’s passionate and original work has made her a remarkable woman of history. 

 

Hatshepsut – Power In The Ancient World

Hatshepsut ruled as Pharoah from 1479 – 1458 B.C. She was the sixth ruler of the eighteenth dynasty. Though she was not the only female ruler, she is often considered the most successful. Her reign was marked by a period of prosperity and artistic renaissance. However, the way Hatshepsut acquired power has been considered controversial by some over the years. After her husband, Pharoah Thutmose II died, she was named regent, holding down the throne for her stepson, Thutmose III. After seven years of dutifully performing these duties, Hatshepsut declared herself Pharoah and began having all artwork depict her as a man. Though some scholars (mostly men) viewed her actions as that of a conniving, shrewish woman, others contend that Hatshepsut’s move was done to protect the throne After a long and successful reign, not unmarked by controversy, Hatshepsut died in 1458. Thutmose III, either as an act of personal revenge or a misogynistic political move, had virtually all records of his stepmother removed. Thankfully, many of the monuments Hatshepsut had erected still stand.

 

Boudica – The Celtic Savior
The Romans conquered Britain in 43 AD, and when they did, most Celtic tribes had to swear fealty. But the Iceni tribe, led by King Prasutagas and Queen Boudica, was initially left alone as a (forced) ally for the Empire until Prasutaga’s death in 60 AD. Since there was no male heir to the throne, the Romans took over. They publicly humiliated Boudica, flogging her and raping her daughters. When Gaius Suetonius Paulinus (the provincial governor at the time) marched into Wales, Boudica and an army of Celts defeated the Roman Ninth Legion. Boudica’s army ravaged Roman strongholds, destroying the Roman capital of Britain and marching to London. Though her final battle with the Romans ended in defeat, Boudica is still hailed as a national heroine.

 

Tomoe Gozen – A Warrior Worth A Thousand
Born circa 1157, she was one of the Onna Musha, part of the female warrior class. She was an accomplished archer and a master of the long sword who fought in the Genpei War. The Genpei war, which was a Game of Thrones-style fight for the throne between the Taira family and the Minamoto family, raged from 1180-1185. During the war, Tomoe established herself as such a badass, that Lord Kiso no Yoshinaka named her as the commander of his army. This probably because Tomoe led a group of 300 soldiers in a battle against the Taira army (which numbered in the thousands) and emerging as one of five survivors. Or possibly it was that she collected the heads of seven Taira mounted soldiers in one battle.

 

Florence Nightengale – The Lady With the Lamp
Florence knew from a young age that she wanted to be a nurse. Despite her family’s staunch disapproval, Florence left England to study at the Kaiserswerth hospital in Dusseldorf, Germany. She became a nurse and was promoted to Head Nurse after only a year. She was known for her work to improve sanitation processes, so Florence was contacted to help with the harsh conditions of the Crimean War. Florence saw that more soldiers were dying from disease and infection than injuries sustained in battle. She got to work cleaning the hospital, procuring clean linens, and nurturing the patients. Her work reduced the mortality rate by two-thirds. During the Civil War, she was consulted on how to improve sanitation conditions on the war front.

 

Harriet Tubman – The Conductor
Harriet was born into slavery in 1820. When her owner died in 1849, Harriet escaped slavery and fled to Philadelphia. Instead of remaining safely in the free state of Pennsylvania, Harriet helped her family make the journey to Philadelphia, starting with her niece, Kessiah, and her family. In 1850, the Fugitive Slave Law was passed, making an escape from slavery more perilous for black Americans. As a result, Tubman routed the Underground Railroad to Canada. She helped hundreds of slaves escape to freedom, and during the Civil War, she acted as a spy for the Union Army.  

 

Claudette Colvin – The Trailblazer
Before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus, there was Claudette Colvin. Claudette was born in 1939 in Montgomery, Alabama. In 1955, at just 16, Claudette refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white passenger. She was arrested and served as one of four plaintiffs in the case Browder vs Gayle, a case that ruled Montgomery’s segregated bus system unconstitutional in 1956. Though Claudette was instrumental in changing this law, her contribution to the start of the Civil Rights Movement is little known. After she had her first child, Claudette and her son moved to New York, where she served as a nurse until retiring in 2014.

 

Shirley Chisholm – The Game Changer
In 1968, Shirley became the first black American congresswoman. Prior to serving in Congress, she received a Master’s degree from Columbia, served as director of the Hamilton-Madison Child Care Center, and as an educational consultant for New York City’s Bureau of Child Welfare. She made history in 1968 when she began the first of many terms in the House of Representatives, serving New York. Shirley also helped form the Congressional Black Caucus in 1969 and also ran for the Democratic nomination for President in 1972. Though it was George McGovern who ultimately received the nomination, Shirley’s run made history once again.

 

Billie Jean King – All She Does Is Win

Billie Jean was a tennis star, an advocate for pay equity, and one of the first openly gay athletes. From an early age, Billie Jean had a love of sports. She played softball until age 11 when she took up the tennis racket. In 1966, she won her first major championship at Wimbledon. By 1968 she became the world’s No.1 female player. Her 1973 match with player Bobby Riggs, a talented but sexist player, secured her place in history. The match was dubbed the Battle of the Sexes, and Billie Jean beat Bobby before an estimated 90 million viewers. In 1981, after being sued by a former assistant and lover, Billie Jean came out. She divorced her husband and settled down with her longtime partner, Ilana Kloss.

 

Ruth Bader Ginsberg – The Notorious R.B.G.
Ruth Bader Ginsberg is the second female appointed to Supreme Court Justice. Born in Brooklyn in 1933, Ruth went on to graduate from Cornell University and then Columbia, where she earned her degree in law. In 1980, Ruth was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals and served until 1993, when former President Bill Clinton appointed her to the Supreme Court. In her role as Supreme Court Justice, Ruth has established herself as a staunch feminist and advocate for social justice. She was a key decider in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges that made same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states. RBG passed away in October 2020, leaving a long and wonderful legacy behind.

 

History is filled with so many more amazing women. What women do you look up to?

The Best (And Worst) Things About Being An Indie Author

Last updated on: Published by: Amanda Ross 0

While it’s always been my dream to be an author, I can’t say I’ve always wanted to be an indie one. Growing up the only path to publication seemed to be the traditional route. It also seemed like a fairytale, where I would be the lucky girl to get seen by the right agent at the right time. I’d get a good advance and my book would skyrocket to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. It’s every author’s dream, but as you get older and as you become more familiar with the industry you start to realize two things: that becoming an NYT bestseller is hard as fuck (harder still if you’ve got any amount of melanin) and that there is more than one way to be successful as an author.


I didn’t initially think about self-publishing when I started writing To Astera, With Love. I queried the novel but it never felt like the right path. I knew that the typical timetable for a book to go from query to publication with the traditional method is about 18 months. Given everything happening in the world and the themes Astera draws upon, I couldn’t wait that long. So I decided to self publish. It’s been just over seven months now, and I’ve grown as a writer, a marketer, and a person. I’ve learned a lot including the best and worst things about being an indie author. Check them out.


Best: Creative Control

I can’t speak for the traditionally published girls but I do know that as an indie author, you have the final say on everything. From cover to interior layout to how the book is marketed, the buck stops with you! This is a double-edged sword. The freedom to find and work with a designer who truly gets your vision and creates a kick-ass cover (see below) is wonderful. But having to find a team of people to work on your book is time-consuming and costly. Also, if they don’t work out, you don’t have an agent or publisher to back you and help you find a better fit.


Worst: Little to No Marketing Budget

If someone tells you marketing isn’t an important aspect of indie publishing they are lying. Marketing is essential for any book, and even more so for indies since there’s not a lot of word of mouth out about the book before publication. A traditional publisher has the coins to spend on digital ads, guest posts, features, etc. for authors (but again, let’s not overlook the fact that books written by BIPOC still struggle to get the same shine as those written by white authors). When you’re an indie, that marketing budget comes from you and you have to get strategic about how you market your book and what platforms are worth your (limited) funds.


Best: Can Think Outside The Box

Being an indie author allows you to get creative with every aspect of the process. From the writing to the layout to the marketing, there’s a lot of chances to think outside the box. One of my favorite things about my book is the placement of the four elements symbols on the chapter headings. Since the magic in Astera is elemental, it was a great tie-in.


Worst: You’re A Writer and Business Owner

Like I mentioned above, being an indie author means you’re responsible for writing, finding an editor, cover designer, layout designer, adding the book to KDP, marketing, etc. You’re as much of an author as you are a business owner. This again is a double-edged sword. I feel you get to know your target audience because you have to work that much harder to hook them. But this means it can feel like you have a whole other job just handling the business aspects of publication.


Best: Creating A Community of Other Indies

Writing is a solitary practice, but marketing your book isn’t. I started finding groups where other authors gathered to talk shop and give advice, and it changed the game for me. Not only did it help me learn more about the publishing process, but I formed genuine friendships with many of them. Community is important when you’re trying to break into one of the toughest industries, and now I work alongside some of my literary homies to create community and a place for authors and readers to gather.


Worst: People Not Taking Indie Seriously

Unfortunately, indie books are still not seen with the same prestige as those that are traditionally published. Despite several books that started as indie titles and were eventually picked up by publishers (The Martian and Rage of Dragons immediately come to mind), many feel that indie books aren’t as good. This makes it harder to break onto “Best Of” lists, to get your book in front of bookstagrammers, etc. It’s not impossible, but it just means it’ll take more work and more out of the box thinking to get your name out there.


I’ve learned so much in the last seven months as an indie author, and I know by this time next year I’ll have learned a whole lot more. I’m thankful for the people I’ve met along the way and I’m proud to be an indie author.

The House on the Hill

Last updated on: Published by: Amanda Ross 0

The first time Claudia Hall saw the house, she fell in love.

 

It was a white, Victorian-style home with green shutters and a large bay window. At the foot of the hill was a large oak tree, with old, sturdy branches and petite green leaves.

 

It was a coffee house called Cuppa, but despite the number of people camping outside of the shop on wicker chairs, there was a “For Sale” sign staked into the grass at the bottom of the hill. After ordering a caramel latte, Claudia stood outside and read the notice next to the door announcing the sale.

 

“Friends and neighbors, after 16 wonderful years, the time has come for Cuppa to say goodbye. We simply cannot thank you enough for being loyal to us, and for all the memories we’ve shared with you. We will close on December 6. If you or anyone you know is interested in buying this lovely home, please contact Fiona (Cuppa’s owner) at 770-457-8962. Thank you for all your business over the years.”

 

Claudia pulled out her phone and texted Jamie, fingers working furiously over the screen.

 

“Baby doll, I think I’ve found the house of our dreams.”

 

They drove to the home the next day. Though Jamie was never one to show her feelings, Claudia could see her eyes light up when she saw it. Outside stood Cuppa’s owner, Fiona. She was a short, round woman who wore baggy khaki capris and a bright yellow shirt with a glittery butterfly on the front. Standing next to her was a woman in cherry red, her black bob as sharp as the lines on her skirt suit.  Her name was Colleen Dubois, the real estate agent tasked with selling the cafe.

 

“How did you find out about this place?” Fiona asked. Her voice was gravelly, smoke-filled.

 

Jamie nodded towards Claudia.

 

“Claudia came here for coffee yesterday and fell head over heels for it.”

 

“Oh, how wonderful! I was hoping to get some traction from the letter and the sign out front.” Fiona said as she ushered them into the coffee house, which she shut down specifically for the occasion.

 

“This house was built in 1865 by Isaiah Mosley,” Colleen began. “He was a successful textile maker. After he died, the house passed to his oldest son, Era Mosley.”

 

They walked into the first room on the right. The room was large, the size of a master bedroom. Three bay windows looked out onto the street and the oak tree at the foot of the hill. In the center of the room was a large desk. Piles of papers and books balanced on either side of the desk, which was covered in detritus.

 

They walked out of the office and passed the stairs, into the main section of the cafe. The registers, counter, and pastry cabinets lined the left side of the staircase. Tables, wooden folding chairs, and large, leather wing backs littered the cafe space. Across from the registers, two large windows looked out to the street and beyond that, a church.

 

“Now, Era became successful in his own right, and in 1897, Era married Phebe Pannabecker, whose father was -“

 

“Elias Pannabecker, the painter?” Jamie said.

 

“Why, yes, how did you know?” Colleen asked.

 

“Jamie was an art major, and she teaches at SCAD,” Claudia said. She leaned into her for a second, catching the scent of her orange ginger conditioner.

 

“Yes, well, Era and Phebe moved into this house shortly after marrying,” Colleen continued, oblivious to Claudia’s previous statement. “They lived here for quite some time. Here’s the kitchen.”

 

It was a long room that took up the rear of the house. It was painted a sunny yellow. Drapes hung over the windows that faced out onto a modest garden, and the space beyond that had been reclaimed as a parking lot for the cafe. Claudia mused about what the garden would have looked like before the bulk of it was paved over with asphalt. What could they do with the empty lot? Surely ripping up the pavement would cost a fortune.

 

Fiona ran up the back stairway to the restroom, leaving them to stand with Colleen and make awkward chitchat.

 

“So, how long have you two… lovebirds been together?” Colleen asked.

 

Claudia and Jamie looked at each other. As a same-sex couple in the South, they were used to the occasional weird comment. Sometimes people just didn’t know how to take them.

 

“Four years,” Jamie said. She slid an arm around Claudia’s waist. Colleen smiled, but the gesture didn’t reach her eyes.

 

“Oh, that’s lovely. And you’re engaged? Can I see the ring?”

 

Claudia smiled and held out her hand for Colleen to take. The woman cooed over her ring, a vintage rose gold band with an opal stone in the center.

 

“You’ve got wonderful taste,” Colleen said, looking at Jamie.

 

“Thank you,”

 

“Do you have a date set?”

 

“Yes, we’re planning for May-”

 

The woman looked up as Fiona trotted down the stairs, her face flushed with the effort. Colleen cleared her throat and transitioned from the curious woman to the hawkish real estate agent.

 

“So, are you ready to talk numbers?” Colleen asked.

 

“Wait,” Claudia said. “We haven’t seen the rest of the home.”

 

Fiona and Colleen looked at each other.

 

“There’s not much to see, just an additional bathroom and two other bedrooms,” Fiona said.

 

Jamie crossed her arms and cocked her head to the side.

 

“Well, if you expect us to live here, we’d like to see the rest of the home. I want to know more about this place. I grew up around here, and I remember this place being deserted for a long time before Fiona set up shop. What happened with the Mosleys? Did they move? Why weren’t there any previous owners?”

 

Colleen sighed.

 

“You’re completely right, Ms. Winters. I’ll take you upstairs and we’ll discuss this home’s provenance.”

 

They walked up the tight back staircase, leading them to the darkened hall on the second floor. Directly across from the stairs was the bathroom. It was a modest size, with simple decorations.

 

There was a room at the end of the hall on the left, one beside the bathroom, and one caddy-corner from the bathroom.

 

Jamie felt a bit of unease as they stood before the bathroom. The hallway felt as cold and oppressing as a cave. The women stood there for a long moment, neither Fiona nor Colleen stepping towards the rooms.

 

“And down the stairs, we go,” Colleen said.

 

“Wait,” Jamie said. “What about these rooms? You still haven’t mentioned anything about the previous owners. Ms. Dubois, if you don’t start telling us what happened in this house before Fiona turned it into some hipster café, we’re going to leave.”

 

Claudia shot her fiancé a look of surprise but held her tongue. When Jamie was on the warpath, it was best to get out of the way.

 

Colleen heaved an exasperated sigh.

 

“Look, I like you, Ms. Winters, I really do. I can tell your fiancé really wants to buy this place, and it’s our goal to sell it as soon as possible. But these rooms, the home’s history, it’s best that you just leave well enough alone.”

 

“What kind of shit show are you running?” Jamie questioned. “Either you tell me about this place, or I’ll call your branch manager on our way home and explain to him you’re deliberately withholding information from us. We’ll see how he feels about that.”

 

The look Colleen gave Jamie was full of venom.

 

“Era and Phebe lived in this house until 1912 when they both died. There were no surviving heirs of the Mosley family, so the house went to the state. It sat empty until 2000 when Fiona here took it over. As far as the rooms go, you’re welcome to take a look yourselves. I’ll be downstairs waiting to discuss price, that is if I’ve provided everything to your satisfaction, Ms. Winters.”

 

Colleen walked down the stairs before anyone could respond. Fiona stood on the landing while Claudia and Jamie explored each of the bedrooms on the top floor. The room on the far end of the hall was the master bedroom. It took up most of the left side of the house and was large enough for a bedroom and a sitting room. The room was empty, but the wallpaper was dingy and worn from the elements. Despite her excitement about the house, Claudia couldn’t help the unease she felt in this room. Though there were windows facing the street and the yard, it felt dark, somehow desolate.

 

They moved to the other rooms, which had the same dreary feeling. The one next to the bathroom had a door that seemed to be stuck, and when Jamie opened it they were met with an intensely stale smell.

 

They walked down the main set of stairs and into the living room. Colleen sat at a table checking her phone. She looked up and offered a tight smile. To Claudia, she looked deflated, upset that she might be losing a sale. To Jamie, she looked like a liar who was only upset because she was caught.

 

“So, ladies? Are we ready to discuss price?”

 

Claudia looked at her fiancé, hopeful. She wished she could communicate with her lover mentally because if she could she’d say just relax, this place is great, don’t do anything stupid. But all she could do was squeeze her hand and smile, hoping Jamie knew her non-verbal cues.

 

Jamie looked at Claudia and nodded. She knew what her mild-mannered fiancé was thinking – that she was being too noisy, too brash, that if she didn’t pipe down they’d lose the house of her dreams. It was probably obvious to Colleen and Fiona that she wasn’t thrilled about the place, or about either of them. But Claudia meant the world to her, and so she’d do just about anything to keep the petite blonde happy.

 

“Okay,” Jamie said, putting on a smile that she hoped was friendly. “Let’s chat.”

 

Thirty minutes later they were sitting at a Shoney’s near the SCAD campus. Claudia was brimming with excited energy, and Jamie couldn’t help but smile at her. It was times like this when she really loved Claudia, when she was excitable and without care, talking a mile a minute, her blue eyes sparkling in the late afternoon sun.

 

“Well, there’s so much we could do with the house, and it’s not too far from work for me, and it’s an easier commute to campus than what you’re doing now.”

 

Jamie nodded.

 

“What do you think?” Claudia asked. She stretched her arm across the table and Jamie grabbed it, entwining her long fingers with Claudia’s petite hand. She felt Claudia’s nails press lightly into the back of her hand, something she found strangely comforting.

 

“Well, it’s definitely in our price range, but, I don’t know, babe. Didn’t it give you the creeps, being upstairs? And what was up with that real estate agent? She seemed to avoid the top floor.”

 

“Sure, I mean, the rooms haven’t been used in so long. And Colleen was a little weird, but after we make the offer we wouldn’t have to see her or Fiona again. I don’t know, there’s something about this place that feels right.”

 

“But, you have to wonder why they kept trying to avoid telling us the history of the place… I mean…”

 

Jamie looked at Claudia. She could see the longing in her fiancé’s eyes. Claudia was totally in love with the property. Despite her misgivings, Jamie nodded.

 

“Okay. We’ll make an offer.”

 

“Yes! Oh, I’m so happy, baby! This place is going to be so good for us!”

 

She leaned across the table and kissed Jamie, her heart fluttering in her chest as their lips touched.

 

They moved into the house a month and a half later. In that time, Fiona had all of the trappings of the cafe removed, including the signage out front.

 

When moving day came, the women rounded up a few friends to help with the heavy lifting. Jamie’s only request was that they use the room downstairs, which Fiona had used as an office, as their bedroom.

 

“The other rooms are creepy as shit,” she said when Claudia protested. “You wanted the house and we got it. The least you can do is let me choose the room.”

 

Claudia nodded then, not used to the vitriol in Jamie’s voice.

 

Jamie got her wish, but the room wasn’t meant for two people, a queen-sized bed, and their large furniture. Their furniture was so big the closet door wouldn’t open all the way without hitting the nightstand. But it made Jamie happy, so Claudia grinned and bared it.

 

That night as they prepared for bed, Jamie thought of the last thing Fiona told them as she handed over the keys:

 

“Make sure you use earplugs when you sleep. The street around the house can get pretty active, especially on the weekends.”

 

At the time, Jamie scowled at this. She’d never seen the type of activity in this area that would require earplugs, but she remained silent, not wanting to argue. She bought two sets of earplugs. After brushing her teeth, braiding her hair, and kissing Claudia goodnight, Jamie slipped the earplugs in. She soon fell asleep as the silence washed over her.

 

Claudia, however, thought that the earplugs were stupid and that wearing them was unsafe. What if there was a break-in? Or a fire? What if the plugs got stuck in her ear canal?  She stared at them on her nightstand, defiant. I lived in Little Five Points for three years, she thought. I can sleep through any sound this tiny ‘burb will make.

 

Sometime around two, Claudia woke up to the sound of footsteps. She rolled over, thinking that Jamie was up and roaming around, but her fiancé was still there laying on her side, her long, dark hair snaked over her shoulder.

 

These footsteps sounded hurried and heavy. There was a clicking sound with each step, like the sound of a high heel hitting the wood floor. She heard the jiggle of a door handle and held her breath, thinking that any minute whoever was on the other side of the door would come bursting in.

 

But when the door remained closed and she heard another set of footsteps, these ones harder than the last, she sat up, her heart pounding loudly in her chest. Claudia remained still, afraid to move. What if the people on the other side of the door heard her? What if they came in and then took her and Jamie hostage? What if they were killed?

 

She heard muffled voices. The voices rose in timber, but she still couldn’t quite understand them. Out of curiosity or nihilism or both, Claudia pulled back the blankets and tiptoed towards the door. She pressed her ear against the old, faded wood.

 

“I will not stand these accusations, Phebe,” she heard a man say. The heavy footsteps sounded again, ambling down the hallway.

 

“I don’t much care what you cannot stand, Era Mosely. Henrietta McKay said she saw you and some floozy walking in Marietta Square not two days ago.”

 

Claudia scowled. Was she really hearing this? It sounded more like a lover’s spat than a break-in, but she didn’t dare open the door. She was stock-still, afraid that if she made any noise they’d come busting down her door and steal her stuff and beat her and possibly kill her.

 

Claudia heard the footsteps retreat towards the kitchen. She cracked the door open.

 

The woman that walked past her was wearing a long, flowing white gown. The sleeves were billowy and tightened at the wrist, only to extend in frills over her hands. The collar of the dress was high, and more frills extended above it. She wore heeled slippers and her hair was tied into a long side braid. She was pacing back and forth, her arms crossed over her nightgown.

 

“Phebe,” the man started. He stepped before her and cupped her face in his hands. He was still dressed in daytime clothing – a gray suit, a white dress shirt. Dust-covered black boots. Claudia could see what looked like a pocket watch dangle from his vest pocket. His dark hair was parted down the middle and slicked back, and he had a thick, bushy mustache. “Phebe, my darling, you know you’re the only one for me.”

 

Claudia pulled the door open further as Phebe brushed Era’s hand away and walked back towards the kitchen.

 

“But how can I believe you Era? You leave me on my own every day, and don’t I care for the home? Don’t I take care of you?”

 

“Of course, you do.”

 

“But I am not enough, am I?”

 

Claudia could hear the hurt in Phebe’s voice and wanted to reach out to her.

 

Era sighed.

 

“Dammit Phebe, don’t you understand? A man has needs, he has-“

 

“Curse you and your needs!” Phebe spat. She turned towards a large wing back chair.

 

“I’ve given you everything you’ve asked of me, Phebe! I provide you with a home, lavish gowns, jewelry! You want for nothing, and yet you paint me as a cad! You give me anger when I would have love!”

 

There was a table against the side of the staircase, the top covered with glass cups and bottles of liquor. Era grabbed a thin glass decanter and poured the amber liquid into a glass. He took a long draw, then turned back to Phebe.

 

“You will take my anger because it is all I can give you! I want a child Era, but how can I lay with you, knowing where you have been? Knowing that you’ve been with every whore in the state!”

 

Era slapped Phebe across the face. Claudia flinched. She took a step back into her room. What was happening? Was she having a hallucination? A vivid, violent walking dream? She was stirred out of her thoughts by the sound of a thud. She looked into the hallway to see Phebe on the ground.

 

“You’re a coward, Era. You’re a goddamned coward!”

 

“Shut up, damn you! How dare you speak to me this way,” Era spat. “I am your husband, and I deserve your respect.”

 

“You deserve nothing!”

 

He stood over her and tried to grab her arms, but Phebe fought back, clawing and scratching at his arms. Eventually, her right hand connected with his cheek, and Era stopped cold. The couple looked frozen in time, Claudia blinked and rubbed her eyes, still trying to determine what was real.

 

Era’s right fist connected with Phebe’s cheek, knocking her down to the ground. He grabbed her left arm and dragged her across the floor. Phebe shrieked, and the sound echoed through the house.

 

“Era, please!” Phebe screamed.

 

He pulled her up by her arm, and Claudia heard a pop as her arm disconnected from its socket. Phebe was sobbing now, her right hand covering her face while her left arm hung limply, awkwardly at her side.

 

“Shut up!” Era bellowed. He pushed her against the closet wall. There was a sharp bang as Phebe’s head hit the wood. His right hand covered her mouth.

 

Phebe pawed at Era’s face with her good arm. She managed to scratch him across the eye, making Era yelp. He punched her again, this time in the eye. He took several steps back, and the smell of sweat and bourbon filled Claudia’s nostrils.

 

Her breath hitched. She pressed against the wall next to the door, afraid that Era would turn around and exact his violence on her, too. She could hear Phebe whimper and the sound of her sliding down to the ground.

 

Era walked towards her and Claudia peeked around the corner. Era tried to cradle Phebe. He was apologizing, blaming the booze, telling her that if she hadn’t questioned him, none of this would have happened.

 

“Leave me,” Phebe said. She had her left arm cradled in her lap.

 

“But, Phebe,” Era said.

 

“I said leave me!” Phebe said. She spat in Era’s face. That same quiet again, and Claudia knew this time that it was the calm before the storm.

 

Era pushed Phebe on the ground and hit her over and over and over again. Claudia whimpered as she saw the blood, heard Phebe choke on it. Era wrapped his arms around Phebe’s throat and began to squeeze.

 

“No,” Claudia said. She clamped her hand over her mouth.

 

Era stopped and looked up, turning his head slowly towards Claudia. His eyes met hers and she could see the hatred, the rage in his eyes. He turned back towards Phebe and continued to choke her, lifting her head and slamming it on the ground.

 

Phebe’s right arm fell to the ground. Her white nightgown was soaked in her blood.

 

Era stood up and stared down at his wife for several seconds before walking into the kitchen. As she heard his footsteps coming back down the hall she closed the door, locked it, and ran towards the bed.

 

“Jamie! Jamie! Wake up!” She shook her fiancé awake.

 

Jamie rolled over with a grunt and opened her eyes. Once she saw the terror on Claudia’s face she sat up and removed her earplugs.

 

“What’s wrong?” She said. She started at the sound of footsteps outside the door.

 

“What the hell?” Jamie said. She tossed off her blankets and leaped out of bed.

 

“No, no don’t go out there!” Claudia cried. Tears streamed down her face. She couldn’t remember ever being this terrified.

 

Jamie put her hands on the door handle, but before she could unlock it she heard the front door open and shut with a loud thud. Footsteps thudded down the front stairs, and across the grass. The women ran to the window and Jamie cautiously peeled back the curtain. She saw the silhouette of a man walk towards the oak tree, carrying what looked like a rope. He tossed one end over the tree and then repeated the motion. Once he tightened it, he began to climb the tree.

 

Jamie turned and slid into a pair of flip flops.

 

“What are you doing?” Claudia asked. She heard the terror in her own voice, heard how shrill she sounded. All she wanted was for this nightmare to be over.

 

“Some weirdo broke into our house and now he’s trying to kill himself. I have to stop him.”

 

“No, it’s-“

 

“Stay here,” Jamie said. She strode towards the door, unlocked it, and opened it. Before she could take a step outside there was a large cracking sound.

 

Jamie looked at Claudia and they both hurried to the window. The man had jumped from the tree and now his body dangled from the cracked limb, swaying in the breeze.

 

“Oh my God,” Jamie said. She flung open the bedroom door and then the front. Claudia ran into the hall, wondering why Jamie hadn’t noticed Phebe’s brutalized body on the ground. But there was nothing there. No body, no blood. The bar that stood against the staircase was gone. The red wing back chair that Phebe had leaned against was replaced by Jamie’s blue velvet recliner. There was no sign of the violence that had occurred moments ago.

 

Claudia stepped onto the porch, wrapping her arms around her. Jamie was halfway down the hill, staring at the tree that had, only seconds ago, bore the weight of Era’s body.

 

Now, it was empty.

Books On My 2021 TBR List

Last updated on: Published by: Amanda Ross 1

New year, new books. 

 

As I’m sure you know, reading is a huge component of writing. Every writer I know is a voracious reader, and they usually have at least two books in rotation. All the writers I know also do something else I think is critical: they make it a point to read books outside of the genre they write. This is a great way to inspire yourself, find new authors, and expand your mind. 

 

I always have a large number of books in my To Be Read (TBR) pile. Often I read them all, but last year was a struggle, what with the pandemic or the summer protests or the fact that I published a freakin’ book

But it’s 2021, and I’m determined to complete my goal of 24 books. Here are 10 I’m most looking forward to reading. 

 

Wings of Ebony, J.Elle

“In this riveting, keenly emotional debut fantasy, a Black teen from Houston has her world upended when she learns about her godly ancestry–and with evil sinking its claws into humans and gods alike, she’ll have to unearth the magic of her true identity to save both her worlds.” 


Perfect for fans of: pantheons of all nations, literal Black Girl Magic, killer covers, and more. 

 

Future Home Of The Living God, Louise Erdrich

“Louise Erdrich, the New York Times bestselling, National Book Award-winning author of LaRose and The Round House, paints a startling portrait of a young woman fighting for her life and her unborn child against oppressive forces that manifest in the wake of a cataclysmic event.” 

 

Perfect for fans of: dystopian thrillers that feel a little too possible and apocalyptic events that spur every action. 

 

When No One Is Watching, Alyssa Cole 

“Sydney Green is Brooklyn born and raised, but her beloved neighborhood seems to change every time she blinks. Condos are sprouting like weeds, FOR SALE signs are popping up overnight, and the neighbors she’s known all her life are disappearing. To hold onto her community’s past and present, Sydney channels her frustration into a walking tour and finds an unlikely and unwanted assistant in one of the new arrivals to the block—her neighbor Theo. But Sydney and Theo’s deep dive into history quickly becomes a dizzying descent into paranoia and fear.”

 

Perfect for fans of: Black psychological thrillers, characters that feel like family. 

 

Death In Her Hands, Ottessa Moshfegh 

“While on her daily walk with her dog in a secluded woods, a woman comes across a note, handwritten and carefully pinned to the ground by stones. “Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.” But there is no dead body. Our narrator is deeply shaken; she has no idea what to make of this. She is new to this area, alone after the death of her husband, and she knows no one. Becoming obsessed with solving this mystery, our narrator imagines who Magda was and how she met her fate.” 

 

Perfect for fans of: unreliable narrators, do-gooders who catch a case being nosey. 

 

Vampires of Portlandia, Jason Tanamor

When Marcella Leones relocates her family of aswang vampires from the Philippines to Portland, Oregon, she raises her grandchildren under strict rules so humans will not expose them. Her only wish is to give them a peaceful life, far away from the hunters and the Filipino government that attempted to exterminate them. Before she dies, she passes on the power to her eldest grandchild, Percival. He vows to uphold the rules set forth by Leones, allowing his family to roam freely without notice. After all, they are aswangs. However, when the aswang covenant is broken, the murder rate in Portland rises drastically.” 

 

Perfect for fans of: funny urban fantasy, learning about myths and legends outside your culture. 

 

Hood Feminism, Mikki Kendall

Today’s feminist movement has a glaring blind spot, and paradoxically, it is women. Mainstream feminists rarely talk about meeting basic needs as a feminist issue, argues Mikki Kendall, but food insecurity, access to quality education, safe neighborhoods, a living wage, and medical care are all feminist issues. All too often, however, the focus is not on basic survival for the many, but on increasing privilege for the few. That feminists refuse to prioritize these issues has only exacerbated the age-old problem of both internecine discord, and women who rebuff at carrying the title.”

 

Perfect for fans of: knowing better to be able to do better, expanding your understanding of the world and your place in it. 

 

An Unkindness of Ghosts, Rivers Solomon

“Odd-mannered, obsessive, withdrawn, Aster has little to offer folks in the way of rebuttal when they call her ogre and freak. She’s used to the names; she only wishes there was more truth to them. If she were truly a monster, as they accuse, she’d be powerful enough to tear down the walls around her until nothing remained of her world, save for stories told around the cookfire. Aster lives in the low-deck slums of the HSS Matilda, a space vessel organized much like the antebellum South. For generations the Matilda has ferried the last of humanity to a mythical Promised Land.”

 

Perfect for fans of: science-fiction space odysseys, murder investigations by a strange genius. 

 

The Ghost Bride, Yangze Choo

“Li Lan, the daughter of a genteel but bankrupt family, has few prospects. But fate intervenes when she receives an unusual proposal from the wealthy and powerful Lim family. They want her to become a ghost bride for the family’s only son, who recently died under mysterious circumstances. Rarely practiced, traditional ghost marriages are used to placate restless spirits. Such a union would guarantee Li Lan a home for the rest of her days, but at a terrible price.”

 

Perfect for fans of: gothic horror, ghost dynasties. 

 

Spook: Science Tackles The Afterlife, Mary Roach

“‘What happens when we die? Does the light just go out and that’s that―the million-year nap? Or will some part of my personality, my me-ness persist? What will that feel like? What will I do all day? Is there a place to plug in my lap-top?’ In an attempt to find out, Mary Roach brings her tireless curiosity to bear on an array of contemporary and historical soul-searchers: scientists, schemers, engineers, mediums, all trying to prove (or disprove) that life goes on after we die.”

 

Perfect for fans of: death, paranormal research, science but make it humorous. 

 

Are any of these books on your list? 

My Favorite and Least Favorite Reads of 2020

Last updated on: Published by: Amanda Ross 0

2020 was a year. There were ups and downs, but one thing that kept me sane was having so many books to read. While I didn’t come close to meeting my reading goal (I set it for 20, think I only got to 15), I still read some great books. These books altogether inspired me and also filled me with the kind of doubt you get when you are in awe of something doing the same thing as you, only like, way better. However, it wasn’t all la vie en rose – there were a few books that just weren’t for me.

 

Here are five of my favorite and five of my least favorite books of 2020. Now I know, not all of these were released this year, but these are ones I read so it still counts – cool? 

 

Favorite: Black Sun, Rebecca Roanhorse

I’ve been wanting a high fantasy tale that didn’t feature 90-plus percent white people and that wasn’t set in real or fictional Europe. I was delighted when my book club, B2Weird, chose Black Sun by Roanhorse. Set in a pre-Columbian land, it tells the tale of Serapio, Xiala, Naranpa, and Ocoa who lead different lives but whose worlds all collide leading up to and on the day of a historic eclipse. This book dealt expertly with issues of class, identity, faith, and more. Xiala was one of my favorite characters of the year – how could I not Stan a bisexual siren who runs the shit? 

 

Least Favorite: Catherine House, Elisabeth Thomas 

I was hype about this book, which was billed as a gothic horror and essential read. However, I found myself drifting every time I’d pick the book up. So much of the tale is populated with “day in the life of” the main character Inez that it left me wanting more tension. I know it’s supposed to be a slow burn, building in intensity like Suspiria or Rosemary’s Baby. But, the book didn’t hold my attention enough to wait for the big payoff. 

 

Favorite: Ninth House, Leigh Bardugo

I like my fantasy gritty, real, and full of things that scare you. That’s what Ninth House is. It’s got fucked up characters that are dealt fucked up hands in life and forced to deal. I devoured this book, especially loving the worldbuilding that Bardugo put into the societies. I’m also a fan of people having powers that they don’t altogether understand, as that allows for a. The reader to connect with them more because we are all novices and b. The hope that there will be a series for us to watch Alex get more powerful because she deserves it. Also, I liked that this book was devoid of a romance – it was a nice change of pace. 

 

Least Favorite – Whisper Network, Chandler Baker

This was another book I was looking forward to but sadly left me unimpressed. It reminded me of The Favorite Sister (read in 2019, loved) and Big Little Lies with the way it was both a murder mystery and a critique and examination of modern womanhood. However, the author placed the burden of saving the day on Rosalita, the Latina office cleaner, only to ostensibly leave her out of the sisterhood of mostly white, blonde women in the end. Without realizing it, the author essentially reinforced the notion that though Black and Brown women do the painstaking labor of anti-racism and sexism work, white women are the first or main benefactors.

 

Favorite: The Return, Rachel Harrison 

I read The Return on a weekend while laying in bed due to my chronic pain. I was looking for something to get lost in, and The Return was that girl. It follows three friends – Elise, Molly, and Mae, in the aftermath of their friend Julie’s disappearance. Molly and Mae want to move on, but Elise believes Julie is still out there. Two years later she’s back, only she came back wrong. This book is a well-rounded horror on so many levels. It’s got a Kubrick-eque atmosphere, especially when the group takes a weekend vacation at a hotel that’s reminiscent of The Madonna Inn, and also a whole lot of body horror. But it also examines the horror of drifting apart from your friends and how that can cause you to lose yourself.

 

Least Favorite: Saint X, Alexis Schaitkin

I love a good beach read, and this was set to be the read for the summer. Though I loved the author’s writing style, I finished this book feeling meh. It’s a murder mystery, following the disappearance of and investigation into the death of a teen named Alison, who vanishes while on vacation with her family at the fictional island of Saint X. While I like that the author had Alison and Claire (our MC) explore their privilege both from a class and race standpoint, the fact that she wrote the other main character to be a Black man and had Claire essentially stalk him for answers about Alison’s death felt like a contradiction and ignorant about the complicated history of white women accusing Black men of crimes.

 

Favorite: The Space Between Worlds, Micaiah Johnson

This book blew me away. I’m a sucker for worldbuilding, and Johnson crafted not one but hundreds of worlds with precision. It tells the tale of Cara, a traverser who travels to different worlds to collect data for the Eldritch Institute. Since traversers can only go to worlds where there isn’t another version of them, Cara is able to visit all but 8 out of 382 worlds. I loved the way Johnson approached complicated topics like abuse, identity, sexuality, and class. Each character she wrote was fully fleshed and human, even the abusive boyfriend that Cara always seems to find on every world she visits. I also adored the relationship between Cara and Dell, Cara’s handler as she traverses. I’m not normally a ‘shiper, but I ‘ship them. Hard.

 

Least Favorite: The Remaking, Clay McLeod Chapman

The concept of this book was so unique that I bought it without hesitation. By the end, though, I was so underwhelmed that I wanted to throw the book across the room. The book essentially deals with the idea of stories being cursed, and how ruinous they can be to the people they are told to. After a woman and her daughter are killed for alleged witchcraft, a young boy is told the story at a camp by a counselor who knew the girl. That boy grows up to make a movie about the killing, casting a young girl to be the daughter, with disastrous results. That girl comes back for the remake of the film, and years later tells her story to a podcaster. Again, the concept was wonderful. The execution left a lot to be desired as it felt like the author got bored halfway through writing it and decided to wrap it up in a random, nonsensical way.

 

What were your best and worst reads of 2020? 

My Favorite Podcasts

Last updated on: Published by: Amanda Ross 0

Let’s get this out of the way now: 2020 has mostly been trash. 

 

Getting through this pandemic has been tough for a lot of reasons, and even though there have been bright spots for me, this year has been so tough mentally, emotionally, and physically. There are only a few things that have gotten me through the year – baking, my writing community, publishing my first book, Megan Thee Stallion, and podcasts.

 

I’ve got an endless library of shows to listen to, but there are a few that are in heavy rotation each week for me. They’ve helped me get through 2020, and they might just help you as we crawl through these last few weeks of 2020.

 

The Read

Hosted by two of the funniest people ever, Kid Fury and Crissle, The Read dissects all things Black culture and current news, from Nene Leakes to Beyonce to the next Versuz battle. The hosts then read and respond to listener lessons where people write in questions from their personal lives and the hosts give advice. Finally, the shows end with the hosts “Reading” something or someone, and no one is safe. They’ve read Missy Elliot, Eva Longoria, flying cockroaches in NYC, the police, etc. This show truly offers a needed perspective, and as a Black woman, it feels like sitting at a cookout with my siblings talking shit and partying.

 

Last Podcast on the Left

I mentioned this podcast in another blog. It’s made my list again because it’s that good – show hosts Henry Zebrowski, Ben Kissel, and Marcus Parks cover all horrors, real and imaginary. Every episode is extensively researched and the chemistry between the show hosts creates a funny and intense dynamic. Some of my favorite topics are Jonestown, Jodie Arias, Adolpho Constanzo, and lobotomies

 

Sibling Rivalry

If you’re even a passing RuPaul’s Drag Race fan, you know who Bob The Drag Queen and Monét X Change are. Their podcast, Sibling Rivalry, is basically two friends talking about everything, from villains to death to social media. All the while, they are ragging on each other as only a pair of siblings could. I’m a big fan of shows where I feel like I’m getting a look inside the creator’s lives, and Sibling Rivalry is the perfect option.

 

You’re Wrong About

Helmed by hosts Michael Hobbs and Sarah Marshall, this podcast seeks to set the record straight on some of the most memorable events in the American zeitgeist, including the Satanic Panic, Lorena Bobbitt, the Challenger explosion, OJ Simpson, and more. This is the perfect podcast for anyone who loves learning about the events that shaped our politics, culture, and world views. The hosts are funny and insightful, and it’s easy to binge-listen to episode after episode. 

 

Dreaming In The Dark

Developed by two Black fantasy lovers and authors, Dreaming In The Dark addresses the roles of Black people in fantasy. Each episode dissects these things, like how loving fantasy as a Black person often meant loving a genre that offered little to no representation. The show featured guests like Roseanne Brown, author of A Song of Wraiths and Ruin, and Tracey Deonn, author of Legendborn

 

Scam Goddess

Hosted by the hilarious Laci Mosley, Scam Goddess feels like sitting in the living room with your best friend and talking about all manner of chicanery, or rather “scams, fraud, robberies, and cons.” Each week you’ll learn more about crimes of passion, of power, and of the internet as Laci chats with guests like Nicole Byer, Trixie Mattel, Jameela Jamil, and Conan O’Brien. This is a fun podcast to listen to when you need a laugh and want to learn something along the way. 

 

Affirmative Murder

This is the first true-crime podcast I’ve come across hosted by two Black men. Alvin and Fran are life-long friends who talk about murder, especially those committed by BIPOC. They are very frank about the things they don’t know, and always make it a point to hold themselves and others accountable. Their chemistry and the way they relay the crimes adds some levity to often very gruesome topics. Some of my favorite episodes are Amerikill Idol, Doo Doo Brown Vendetta, Room 1046, and Horror at Harvard.

 

Hollywood Crime Scene

Listening to the ladies at Hollywood Crime Scene is like hanging out with your best friends, talking about true crime, and eating your favorite comfort foods. Long-time friends and hosts Desi Jedeikin and Rachel Fisher talk about crime specifically related to Tinsel Town – everything from Bing Crosby to Judy Garland to the Red Lipstick Murder. Their chemistry is amazing and they don’t hold back with their commentary about the crimes, food, sex, or other celebrities. 

 

Keep It 

This is the perfect show for all you pop culture and news junkies. Hosted by journalists/ screenwriters Ira Madison III, Aida Osman, and Louis Vertel, Keep It breaks down the latest news in Hollywood and beyond, discussing everything from the coronavirus to Pose to Brittney Spears. They also have a weekly guest, and some of my favorites have been Angelica Ross, Gabrielle Union, Eugene Levy and Kathrine O’Hara, and more.

 

What Did You Do?!

There are a ton of true crime podcasts out there, but very few are helmed by Black hosts. Charneil and Dee examine crimes, both famous and lesser-known, using their respective backgrounds in forensic psychology and social work. Their unique perspectives and humor make this podcast feel like you’re launching into deep conversation with your best friends about the correlation between mental health and crime. Some of my favorite episodes include Andrea Yates, The Hart Family, and Andrew Cunanan

 

90’s Crime Time 

This show focuses on crimes that take place in the ’90s, the best (or worst) decade. The host, Simone Taylor, has the most relaxing and calming voice. She recounts each tale with mounting tension, like the episode about James Byrd Jr., and at the end gives her opinion on the case. Most episodes are thirty minutes or less, so they are before for when you need something quick to listen to.

 

Bruh Issa Murder

Hosted by the hilarious and chill duo of Andre and Battle, Bruh Issa Murder is another true crime podcast hosted by Black men who primarily discuss crimes against and involving BIPOC. They each bring a tale to the table and at the end include a cut of some music as somewhat of a palate cleanser. Their chemistry and passion for cases like The Grim Sleeper and Kenneka Jenkins make this podcast a must-listen, especially for Black true crime lovers. 

 

Lore

If you ever find yourself in the mood for something spooky, Lore is the podcast to go to. Hosted by Aaron Mahnke, each episode talks about something supernatural like the undead or some part of our grim history, like H.H. Holmes. Episodes are short, about 40 minutes, and they are easy to binge to get your fix of the macabre.

 

Hopefully one or all of these podcasts will help you get through the rest of this year and the next (let’s be real, no one knows what fresh hell or heaven is waiting for us next year). I’m always looking for new podcasts to add to my already long list – what podcasts do you listen to? 

Footprints In The Snow

Last updated on: Published by: Amanda Ross 0

Ezra
Ezra Richter stared at a set of footprints in the snow.

They were medium-sized, one bigger than the other. Ezra wouldn’t have given them a second glance, had he not noticed one thing.

“The steps lead to my property, to the back door of the house. But there are none that lead away. I’ve checked the entire perimeter,” Ezra said and rubbed his hands against the cold. “Have you seen anything like this before?”

“Ezra, it could have easily been one of your kids trying to pull a prank,” Simon, his neighbor, said.
Ezra shook his head.

“Well, what does Petra think of all this?”

“Petra,” Ezra repeated his wife’s name. Even Ezra could hear the edge in his voice, like poking a bruise that was healing, but still fragile. “She hasn’t been interested in anything but the baby, and with Bridget being a first-time mom—”

“Well, it could have been the kids or a passerby. You have a lot of lands and you live near the road, so perhaps someone tried to take a shortcut to the woods.”

Ezra considered this, then nodded.

“Go spend some time with your family and if it happens again, let me know,” Simon said. He smiled at Ezra and walked up the road to his ranch.

Ezra returned to the barn, eager to resume his routine. As he fed the horses, his mind drifted. Could it have been one of the kids? Could it have been Petra, out for an early morning walk?

He’d ask them at dinner, and he was sure precocious, teenage Alby would admit he’d been the culprit and Ezra would feel relieved.

Or perhaps it had been Myna. She’d smile at him with her sheepish grin, her eyes gleaming as she admitted to leaving the footprints. He’d laugh it all away and things would be normal.

Six hours later, they sat down for dinner.

“I never saw any footprints,” Alby said.

“Don’t talk back to your father,” Petra scolded. She glared at Alby over her glass of water.

“It’s all right, Petra,” Ezra said. She turned the same gaze toward him but said nothing.

“What about you, Bridget? Did you see anything last night or this morning?”

“It wasn’t me! I was up late with Willem trying to get him to sleep. He didn’t want to the nipple so I tried a bottle, but he just kept crying and crying, so I tried rocking him. I wasn’t out there, Dad, I swear!”

“Bridget, it’s okay.”

Her eyes were glassy, tears welling at the edges. Ezra smiled and patted her shoulder. She looked down at her hands.

They ate the rest of their dinner in silence. Afterward, Bridget went upstairs to tend to the baby. Alby and Myna went to the living room to finish their homework.

When Ezra told his family about the footprints in the snow, he had not mentioned that the footprints led to their home, but not away from it. Ezra knew he had to tell his wife. But Petra could be erratic, quick to sting. She stood at the sink with her back to him. Ezra sighed and walked to the counter, standing just behind her. The dishes clinked in the sink as she washed them. “Those footprints I mentioned earlier. They lead to the house but… there were none leading away.”

Petra’s hands paused in the sudsy water.

She turned to look at him. “What?”

“I didn’t see anymore on the property,” he said before she could ask.

“Well, what are you going to do? Did you check the rooms? The barn? The attic?”

“I checked all of it.”

He walked toward his wife and embraced her. She pushed him away too soon and turned back to the dishes.

“It’s all going to be okay,” he said. Petra grunted.

Ezra could tell he was not convincing her. He ran a hand over his face, a hand that still seemed dirty no matter how many times he scrubbed. Before he could say anything else, the sound of rushing water stopped. She wiped her hands on her dress and strode to the living room.

“Time for bed, Alby, Myna.”

Three sets of footsteps ascended the stairs. There was no sense in staying up any longer. Tomorrow would be a long day of cleaning the barn and repairing the back fence. Perhaps I’ll bring the fence around the west side of the property, Ezra thought.

He walked into the living room and locked the front door. He turned the lights off as he moved through the home, making sure all the windows were locked. As he finished locking the back door, he looked out the window, where he thought he saw movement near the barn.

His hand shot back to the lock, ready to fling the door open. But there was nothing. The yard was still. He shook his head and walked upstairs, turning off the last set of lights.

 

Bridget
Willem woke up with a wail.

“Perhaps he’s teething,” her mother said when Bridget begged for help.

“How do I make him stop?” Bridget asked.

Her mother scoffed. “Sometimes a baby just needs to cry.”

She continued moving. She was making banana bread, and Bridget marveled at how calm and collected her mother always seemed.

Willem was still shrieking, snot and tears covering his nose and mouth, his cheeks red and puffy. He’d gotten snot on her dress. Bridget gagged twice before gaining control.

Her mother looked over her shoulder at her and sighed.

“If you can’t handle a child, you shouldn’t have opened your legs.”

Bridget’s stomach dropped. Her mother pursed her lips and wiped her hands on her apron. She grabbed Willem, and seconds later he was quiet.

Bridget’s eyes were glassy now as she stared at her baby nestled in her mother’s arms. She was never good at anything, not like Alby or Myna. She thought that giving birth, being a good mother, was instinctual. But, like everyone else, Willem preferred the company of others. If she couldn’t do the one thing God put women on this earth to do, what good was she?

“Really, Bridget, it’s okay. You’re just nineteen,” her mother said. “Some women take longer to get used to motherhood.”

She set Willem down in his crib. He looked sleepy, content.

“Why don’t you go to the store for me? Take my car.”

Bridget nodded. Her mother grabbed a grocery list from the refrigerator.

“Be sure to get yourself some ice cream or a cookie, something that will make you feel better.” Her mother winked, and Bridget smiled meekly. She stuffed her feet into a pair of boots and grabbed her coat. She turned toward the key hook. Her mother’s car keys were gone.
“Mom, where are the keys?” Bridget asked.
“On the hook, dear.”
Bridget furrowed her brow.
“They aren’t there, mom.” She tried to keep her composure; she couldn’t allow herself to become frantic.
When she got to the door, her mother scowled.
“Alby!” she called. Seconds later, Alby trudged down the stairs.
“Yes, Mom?” he asked.
“Have you taken my car keys?”
He shook his head.
“Maybe Dad has them?” Bridget offered. Her mother walked around the kitchen. After giving the kitchen a thorough look, their mother turned to them.
“Well, don’t just stand there. Help me find the keys.”
They searched the house. When they found nothing, her mother told Bridget to search the barn. Immediately, her heart beat faster.
“Can’t Alby check the—”
“Just do as I say,” Petra snapped.
Bridget nodded and walked outside.
She’d always been scared by the barn. It felt cold and stark to her, despite Hugo and Maria. She slid open the door and took a cursory look around. Hugo and Maria were in their stalls. They stared at her as she walked in, as though they found her wanting. She peaked in their stalls but found nothing. She walked to the end of the barn, where her father kept the tools and the hay.
Still, there was nothing. Still, she had not found the keys. Bridget walked back to the house. She stepped into the kitchen with a sigh, glad to be back in the warmth of the house. Her mother was on the phone. She twisted the cord around her finger.
“You’re sure you don’t have them, Ezra?” she asked. Her lips set in a thin line. After a while, she hung up the phone. Her mother sighed and walked back to the counter.
“Looks like the keys are lost,” her mother said. “Just take the spare.”
Bridget nodded. She grabbed the keys and walked out the door.

 

Alby
Bridget came home with groceries an hour later. Alby saw something beneath her usual world-weariness.
“What’s eating you, Bridget?” he whispered.
“Nothing,” she said. She strained to reach the top shelf to put away the oats and rice. Alby shook his head and grabbed them from her, then slid them onto the top shelf.
“Liar,” Alby said. Bridget looked into the living room, then back at her brother.
“It’s just, with the keys missing, and the steps in the snow, and…” She was near tears. “Something happened while I was out today.”
“What?” Alby asked.
“The whole time I felt like someone was following me.”
“Following you?”
“Yes,” Bridget began. “I went down to the market first. At every turn, there was someone there, just out of the corner of my eye.” Tears spilled down her pale cheeks.
Alby hugged her. He wanted her to stop crying. Once Bridget started, it was likely she wouldn’t stop.
“It’s all going to be okay, Bridget, I swear. Nothing bad is going to happen.”
Bridget pulled back. “You promise?”
Alby nodded. Later that night, though, Alby realized how wrong he’d been.
His bedroom faced the barn. He was a light sleeper, so when he heard something that sounded like whimpering, he awoke with a start. He went to the window and looked out onto the yard. A fine layer of snow covered the ground, and more was still falling. Alby didn’t hear the noise again. He was about to go back to bed, thinking he had probably been dreaming, when something caught his eye.
The barn door was open. Perhaps it’s just a trick of the light, he thought. It was more likely that the door was really closed and he’d be foolish to run outside in the cold, looking for ghosts. He pressed his face against the window and squinted.
The snowfall was heavier now. The wind whipped at the trees. Snow blew into the cavernous opening of the barn. His throat went dry. Should he wake his father? Should he go out there himself?
“Christ,” he said. The door was open and there was no way he’d be able to stay inside now. Hugo and Maria were in the barn, and they’d freeze to death. He’d never forgive himself if that happened.
He sighed and shrugged on a coat. He tiptoed down the stairs. He tugged on his boots and walked out into the cold.
His boots crunched against the snow as he made his way to the barn. The yard was nearly dark, except for the light post his father had installed.
Alby grabbed a flashlight anyway. He stood in the opening of the barn, listening for any sound. He heard Hugo’s steady breath from his stall just beside the door. As he walked a little farther into the barn, he stood next to Maria’s stall and was instantly alarmed. Maria was struggling, her breath coming in shallow pants. She whimpered.
There was something else too, something that sounded like whispering. As Alby lifted his flashlight toward Maria’s stall, he saw the top of someone’s head.
He sprinted back to the house and flung open the door. Alby took the stairs two at a time and ran to his parents’ room. He pounded on the door.
His father jerked open the door, his face full of exhausted anger. He must have seen the terror in Alby’s eyes because his face softened.
“What is it?” He asked.
“Something’s happened to Maria,” Alby said.
“What?”
“I don’t know. I went to the barn because the door was open, and she was on the ground. She sounded like she was in pain.”
He father turned and grabbed his coat from the closet. His mother stood and pulled on a pair of thermals. After his father slipped into his boots, they ran out to the barn. His father flung open Maria’s stall door and gasped.
Maria was on the ground, and her foal was beside her. It was smaller than it should have been.
“Maria wasn’t due to give birth for another four months,” Alby said. His father nodded and ran a hand over the foal’s coat. There was no heartbeat. Maria bled profusely, her eyes cloudy and unfocused.
“Go get towels and more light,” his father said. Alby knew that there was nothing they could do for her, though he still obliged. He wondered if he should tell his father what he saw. But was he even sure about what he’d seen?
“What happened to Maria?” His mother asked. She stood in the doorway to the barn, arms crossed.
“She had her foal. It was so premature, it didn’t stand a chance,” his father said.
They worked through the early morning to save Maria. But after several hours, she’d stopped moving.

 

Petra
After they left the barn, Alby and Ezra went back to sleep. She stayed up and made coffee. Started breakfast. A woman’s job is never done, she thought. She made the batter for pancakes, and her mind wandered. While she’d been helping them with Maria, she found a small vial in the hay beside her body. Most of the substance was gone, and she didn’t recognize its smell.
Afterward, Alby told them that he thought he saw someone in Maria’s stall just before he woke them up. Ezra dismissed it, saying it was crazy, that Maria had just been unlucky and given birth earlier than planned. Petra agreed with Ezra then, but now she wasn’t so sure.
Was it even possible? Had there been someone in the stall with Maria?
“Morning, mother,” Myna chirped. Petra turned to see her youngest daughter take her seat at the table. Petra offered her a quick smile and continued making the pancakes. Willem was crying, which meant Bridget would be joining them, frantic and needing help.
Her eyes burned from exhaustion, and she still felt cold. Alby and Ezra came to the table just as the girls finished their food.
“Hello, girls,” Ezra said. Though he’d slept another hour, he still sounded exhausted.
“Morning, Dad,” Myna and Brigit said. Myna headed up the stairs to get ready for school. Alby was already dressed, though Petra had half a mind to let him stay home for the day. He seemed to be just as exhausted as Ezra, if not more.
They ate in silence, save for Willem’s whimpering as Bridget spoon-fed him.
Petra clutched her coffee cup. She hadn’t eaten much, couldn’t stomach it. She felt queasy like her stomach was full to the brim with acid.
“I’m going into town today,” she said.
“Oh?” Ezra said. He glanced at her from over his newspaper. “You hardly ever go into town.”
It was true, she didn’t. Petra was always more than happy to let Ezra or Bridget run errands. She was about to change her mind when her hand drifted down to her pocket, where the vial sat. This was why she needed to go. She had to find out what the hell had been in the vial, and whether it had anything to do with pushing Maria into labor.
“But mom,” Bridget said. “If you’re gone, what will I do with the baby?”
“Well, you’ll figure it out, of course. I won’t always be here to help. Besides, I know you can do this.” Petra said, doing her best to sound reassuring. Bridget looked near tears again.
Petra retreated upstairs where she took a quick shower and slipped on her warmest clothes. She turned to the mirror and sighed. She looked tired, worn. She looked like a woman well into her fifties, instead of a woman who’d just celebrated her fortieth birthday. She forced a smile and walked down the stairs.
Petra kissed Bridget and Willem and headed for the door. She stepped out of the house and winced. It was a clear, sunny day, but the cold was bitter and unyielding.
Petra locked the door. As she turned toward her car, something brushed against her arm. A lock of long, crimson hair was stuck to the brick facade of their home. She leaned forward and examined it. It was much too vibrant to match the dull, dark red of her own hair. But it was too red to belong to Myna and too light to belong to Bridget, whose hair was a teak-colored brown. Petra scowled as she grabbed the hair and headed to her car, examining the trusses along the way.
She pulled up to the pharmacy. The strand of hair coiled in the seat next to her like a question mark. She pulled the vial from her jacket pocket. It was cold to the touch, and the remaining liquid had almost evaporated.
The door opened with a jingle, and Mr. Strauss looked up as she stepped in.
“Ah, Petra, how are you?” he said. He’d worked at the pharmacy since Petra was a teenager. Back then, he had white-blonde hair that he wore in the style of Clark Gable. Now, she looked at the man, whose hair was a shock-white cloud around his head.
“I wish I could say I was better,” she began. Mr. Strauss lifted a brow. She placed the vial onto the counter top. “I found this in one of my horse’s stall. She gave birth to a foal—”
“Oh, congratulations!”
“Well, she wasn’t due for another four months. The foal died and we had to put her down.”
Mr. Strauss frowned. “I’m so sorry, Petra.”
She nodded. Her cheeks grew hot. “Anyway, I came here to find out what that might be, and if it had anything to do with Maria’s early labor.”
Mr. Strauss picked up the vial and turned it this way and that. “Well, I can certainly tell you what it is but it may take me a while… we’re backed up on our prescriptions now. If you don’t hear from me today, I’ll give you a ring tomorrow.”
Petra’s heart sank. She had hoped for an answer sooner rather than later, but what else could she do?
“All right,” she said. She gave him a tight smile. The door behind him opened and a young woman came out. She was tall and thin with a face pitted with acne. A long scar ran the length of her left cheek, and she had a cleft lip. Her hair was tied back with a red bandanna.
Mr. Strauss looked over his shoulder at her. “Ah, Petra. This is my assistant, Isolde.”
“Nice to meet you,” Petra said. The girl stood stock still, staring at Petra with piercing blue eyes. They were the reproachful eyes of a wolf. Petra looked away.
Isolde didn’t respond to her greeting, even as Mr. Strauss said, “She’s been such a big help. I’m not as young as I used to be, not as fast. She helps me keep this old place running.”
“Well, I should be going. I look forward to hearing from you,” Petra said.
Mr. Strauss nodded. He turned toward Isolde, who was still staring at Petra.
“Isolde, why don’t you go grab us some lunch from the deli?” Mr. Strauss asked. Isolde looked at him and nodded. She walked around the counter and passed Petra. Petra flashed Mr. Strauss one last smile and walked out of the store, behind Isolde.
As they stepped into the sunlight, Petra swore that, beneath Isolde’s red bandanna, was a head full of vibrant red hair.

 

Myna
After a fitful sleep, Myna awoke to find her bedroom door wide open. She scowled at this, as she was always so good about closing her door. Had one of her parents or siblings opened it to look in on her in the middle of the night?
She got out of bed and shrugged on her robe. She shuffled down the hallway. As she did, the floorboards in the attic creaked above her.
Myna stopped and looked up at the attic door. Her heart galloped in her chest. What if there was something there? What if whatever it was jumped out of the attic and attacked her?
The noise stopped.
After a few more seconds of silence, she headed for the stairs. Her foot barely touched the bottom step before she heard the creaking sound again.
Her parents were in the kitchen. Her father read the paper, his hair a mess of unkempt curls. Normally, he was a clean-shaven man. Today, however, it seemed as though his beard might overtake his face.
Her mother was in the kitchen. She stood at the stove making eggs. Her shoulders heaved up and down, as though she were crying.
“Dad,” Myna started. Her voice quivered. She sounded meek, small. Her father looked up at her over his paper. “I think there’s something in the attic.”
“Oh?” he said.
Myna nodded. “I heard a… shuffling sound just now.”
Her father scowled, then looked back at his paper.
“I’m sure it’s nothing, honey.”
“But, Dad—”
“Listen to your father,” her mother said. She turned toward them and set a bowl of scrambled eggs on the table. Her cheeks glistened with tears, and her eyes were rimmed in red.
Myna sat next to her father, dutiful and silent. She played with the hem of her robe as she waited for her siblings to join them.
Willem’s cries were getting louder, which meant that Bridget was coming down the stairs. When she stepped into the kitchen, she had him balanced precariously on her hip. Bridget set Willem in his high chair and took a seat at the table beside him.
“Did anyone hear that noise in the attic last night?” Bridget said. Myna’s eyes widened.
“I didn’t hear anything last night, but I did this morning,” she said. She glanced at her father, who was wiping his face with his hands.
“I’ll not have any more talk of something in the attic,” her father said. “It’s probably a rat or a bird. It’ll die eventually. It’s not something to worry about.”
“But, Father—” Bridget began.
Her father slammed his fists on the table. Myna jumped.
“I said, not another word on this. We will eat breakfast in silence. Then you can resume your chores.”
Tension settled over the table like a shroud. They remained in silence as they ate. Even precocious Alby said nothing and stared at his food. After breakfast, Myna collected their plates and set them in the sink.
“Myna, go help your brother with the hay,” her mother said.
Myna frowned. Though the sun was out and a lot of the snow had melted, it would still be cold outside. But her mother wasn’t one to ask for something twice, and Myna nodded, grabbed her boots, and sat on the stairs. The phone rang, and Myna slowly unlaced her boots, her curiosity getting the better of her.
“Hello?” her mother began. “Oh, yes. Hello, Mr. Strauss.”
Her mother nodded and squinted, as though thinking deeply on what he had to say.
“Oxycodone? What’s it—” Her mother’s eyes widened, and Myna grew alarmed. Her mother gripped the counter. Myna stepped off the stairs and toward the kitchen, thinking she might comfort her mother.
But when her mother noticed Myna standing in the kitchen instead of heading outside, she scowled. She motioned for Myna to go away.
Alby was nearly done by the time she’d trudged her way through the snow. He looked up at her and smiled, wiping his brow. Myna grabbed a shovel from the side wall and began digging up the hay. What was oxycodone? she wondered. Why did Mom look so worried? Did it have anything to do with Maria?
“Hey,” Alby called. Myna looked up, ripped from her reverie. “You’re digging a hole.”
Myna looked down to see she’d shoved all of the hay into the barrel and was now digging through the earth.
“Oh, sorry,” she said. She put the shovel back and took a seat on the log just outside the barn door.
“What’s wrong?” Alby asked.
Myna was silent for a while before speaking. “Do you know what oxycodone is?”
“No, why?”
“Well, when I was getting my boots on, Mom got a call from Mr. Strauss, the pharmacist.”
“Yeah?” Alby said.
“So, I guess he told her something about it.”
Alby was thoughtful. “Mom found some kind of vial in Maria’s barn while… the other night.”
Between the two horses, Maria had been her favorite. She hadn’t had the chance to say goodbye.
“I saw someone in the bar that night,” Alby said.
Myna’s eyes widened. “Really?”
“Yes. Well, I’m pretty sure there was someone in there with Maria. But by the time I came back with Dad, she was gone,” Alby replied. He gazed out onto the yard. “But you can’t tell Mom and Dad. They’d kill me for scaring you, and with that vial…”
His voice trailed off. He didn’t need to finish his sentence.
Myna’s mind drifted back to Maria, to when she first learned to ride her. She stayed on Maria for hours, and they rode all around the property, stopping at the copse of trees that marked the edge of the forest. Myna looked over there now as if to see her seven-year-old self riding a much smaller Maria.
What she saw now nearly made her fall off the log.
By the copse of trees that lead into the woods stood a girl with a red bandanna.
Myna tapped the side of her brother’s leg. He looked at her and then followed her gaze. Before she knew it, Alby was on his feet, running at full speed toward the woman.
“Alby! Alby!” Myna screamed. She lingered by the log. Should she run after Alby? Should she go tell her parents? Or should she stay and wait for Alby to come back?
Her breath came out as little clouds in the air. She stood and put one foot before the other. Without thinking about it, Myna began to run. Branches and leaves smacked her in the face as she ran deeper into the forest. She nearly tripped over an errant tree root and stubbed her toe on a large rock.
“Alby?” Myna said.
She reached a clearing where Alby stood, motionless. The clearing offered a slight view of her house between the trees.
“Alby?” She called again. “Alby, what—”
He turned to her and held his finger to his lips. He pointed toward the tree directly to her left. Crudely carved into the tree was his name, “Alby.”
Upon further inspection, Myna noticed that the tree beside it had her name carved. A chill ran down her spine as she turned to look at the trees in the clearing. They were all carved with the names of her family.
“What is this?” Myna asked.
“I don’t know,” Alby whispered.
A tree branch snapped in the far corner of the clearing. Myna and Alby turned to see the girl with the red bandanna. Her right eye twisted inward. Her cheeks were covered in acne. She sneered at them and in all of her thirteen years, Myna had never been so scared.
The girl held something behind her back. It was too heavy for her because her right arm slumped from the weight of it.
“Who are you?” Alby shouted.
She looked toward him as though coming out of a daze. She brought the object forward, letting it dangle. It was an ax, and part of the handle was dented. It looked like the same ax her father used to chop wood.
Myna looked at Alby. He stood stock still, all color drained from his face.
“What do we do?” Myna whispered.
The girl took a step toward them.
“Run, Myna, run!” Alby said.
She turned and followed the path back to her home. Her lungs burned, and her legs screamed at her to stop. Navigating through the wood was more difficult this time—Myna tripped over rocks and tree stumps, nearly falling flat on her face.
Finally, she was clear of the woods. The second her feet touched the muddy grass of her backyard she sprinted toward the house. Her father’s truck sat in the driveway now. He was home and would do anything to protect them.
Someone screamed. Myna stopped. It sounded low, guttural. It sounded like Alby. But wasn’t he behind her? He should have caught up to her by now, he’d always been the faster runner.
Myna turned and was now face to face with the girl. This close, Myna saw she was several years older. Her bright-blue dress was covered in blood. She lifted the ax and Myna’s world went black.
When she came to, she was still on the grass. The sun was setting, casting a pink and purple glow about the yard. Her head throbbed and when she touched her temple, her hand came back crimson and glistening. Myna whimpered. A short distance away, she saw two shapes in the grass. She strained to see it, her head and neck throbbed with each movement.
It was Alby and her father. She stifled a scream. She tried to stand, but her legs were too weak. She crawled toward her father and brother.
Alby was on his stomach, his head turned to the side. His clothes were soaked through with blood and his once-vibrant blue eyes were now dull. His mouth hung open. Her father lay beside her brother, his face split in two. His eyes had rolled so far up she could only see the whites of them.
She looked toward the barn and saw the door was open. The outdoor lamp illuminated part of the space. There was something or someone on the ground. She crawled toward the barn, every movement agonizing. Blood dripped down her arm. She reached the barn and saw what was inside.
Myna screamed, a sound so foreign she could hardly believe she was making it.
There was Bridget. She was on her back with her hands above her head. Her legs, stomach, and chest were hacked to ribbons of yellow fabric and skin. Her hair stuck to her face. Her mother lay at the foot of Maria’s empty stall. She lay face up, her hair surrounding her like a halo. Her head hung from her neck by a few bits of skin. Her temple was split.
Myna sat back on her knees, in the dirt, in a puddle of her mother’s blood. Her energy waned, and her vision blurred.
She grabbed her hair and pulled and screamed and cried. She tugged so hard, large clumps came loose in her hands. When she heard the footsteps behind her, Myna had no time to mourn. She didn’t have to guess who it was. Her breath hitched as the ax dug into her side.
She coughed up blood, spitting some on her mother’s disfigured face. She fell forward, her body stretching across her mother. Her head swam, her body ached. The last thing she heard was steps retreating from the barn.

 

Isolde
Isolde was born scarred. Her lip was split in two and even after the doctors stitched it together, she always looked like she was sneering. Her right eye pointed inward. As she got older, her cheeks and forehead were covered in acne. She picked at them, she couldn’t help it, and the open wounds scabbed over and scarred. She was born ugly, the women at the orphanage told her, and God saw fit to keep her that way. The women at the orphanage told her she’d been abandoned as a baby, dropped off on their steps with barely a blanket in midwinter.
“It’s because you’re so damn slow,” they said. “No one wants an ugly baby that’s also stupid.”
But Isolde wasn’t stupid, nor was she slow. She was just quiet. Watchful.
One night when she was ten, the ladies at the orphanage made everyone gather into a room to listen to the radio. There was to be a war and soon, all the young men would be drafted. While the women spoke in hushed tones about the horrors to come, Isolde snuck into the records room. She could read well enough, so she searched for her name.
Her file was jammed at the back of the drawer.
“Isolde Richter.”
That was her name. Richter. The files read that she was given up by “the parent’s own accord.”
She shoved the file back into the cabinet. She ran to her room and cried, hating that the women there were right. Her belly felt full of hot coals. Her eyes stung with tears. After cleaning herself up and brushing her teeth, Isolde lay in bed and vowed to find her family. Surely they’d made a mistake. They hadn’t really wanted to give her away, had they?
When she was fourteen, Isolde ran away from the orphanage. She went into the town and looked for work. She was tired of the rules and the beatings. She wanted real food and clean water.
Isolde took a job at the bakery. She worked there for five months until, one scorching summer day, she heard the bell ring.
“Good afternoon, Mrs. Richter,” said Mr. Fielding, the baker, and owner.
She nearly dropped the dough she held in her hands. Could it be? Was it really her mother, inside the shop, so near to her?
She had to know what she looked like. Isolde set down the dough on the counter and peeked through the racks of bread. Her heart thrummed in her chest. She tried to keep quiet, but she felt like her breath was too hard to control. She clamped a hand over her mouth.
Her mother was beautiful. Ivory skin, freckles, wide blue eyes. Her hair was chestnut. She smiled and Isolde’s heart leaped in her chest.
Isolde’s eyes were cloudy with tears. She wanted to run to her. She imagined that her mother would recognize Isolde immediately and fold her in her arms and take her home and-
The sound of the doorbell pulled her out of her daydream. Now Isolde was filled with dread. She couldn’t lose her, not again. Isolde ran out the back door. She turned right toward the street as her mother was turning left, toward the country. Isolde followed her, taking care to stay out of sight.
When they got to the road that led to a large, yellow house, Isolde walked past the lane and into the wooded area by the house. The woods opened to a clearing. From there, Isolde had the perfect view of the house.
A man with graying hair stood outside and chopped wood.
“Father,” Isolde said. She took a step forward. She had to say something, Surely her parents would want to know—
“Dad!”
Isolde saw a boy with blonde hair run out of the house, holding the hand of a young girl.
Dad? Isolde thought.
The man smiled and picked up the little girl. He kissed her cheek.
“My sweet girl,” he said.
Isolde stifled a scream. Sweet girl, he said. Sweet. Girl.
Another girl stepped out of the house, this one several years older than Isolde.
“Dad, Mom forgot a few things for dinner. Can you go to the store?”
Her father sighed and nodded.

“Do you have a list of things she needs, Bridget?” He ushered the children inside the house and closed the door.
Isolde sank against a tree and sobbed. She always thought it was that her family couldn’t afford her. But that was a lie. They had given her up because she really was hideous. She was ugly, ugly, ugly.
Her teeth ground together. They’ll pay, she thought. I’ll make them all pay.
Over the next three years, she came to this clearing and watched them.
When she wasn’t watching her family, she was working. She worked at the apothecary now. Every hour she was awake she spent thinking of her family; hating them, loving them, wanting to be like them. She couldn’t have them, so she had to kill them.
The first was Alby. His bones cracked louder and louder with each blow.
She knocked out Myna, her sweet baby sister. She’d be the last to die. She was only thirteen, after all. She deserved some mercy.
Ezra heard Alby’s screams and ran out the door.
“No! My son, no!” he yelled. He knelt to check Alby’s pulse and sobbed.
Isolde seized the opportunity and brought the ax down on his neck. Ezra fell to the ground and rolled over to face her. With a grunt, Isolde slammed the ax into his face, cleaving his nose and forehead in two.
“Don’t move or I’ll shoot!”
Isolde turned. Her mother stood at the door. She pointed a gun at Isolde. Bridget stood behind her mother. She saw her father, brother, sister on the ground and screamed.
Isolde took a step toward Petra. Her mother pulled the trigger, but nothing happened.
Isolde smiled. She’d gotten rid of the bullets days ago.
Isolde gestured toward the barn. The women ran in and huddled together beside the horse stalls. Isolde opened Hugo’s stall. The horse ran from the barn, neighing into the evening.
She turned toward her mother and sister. Isolde’s ax connected with Petra’s neck so hard her mother’s spine snapped. Blood spilled from the wound and onto her hands. She already had some on her dress and on her face, in her hair. She pulled the ax out of her mother’s neck and hit her again in the temple. The body fell to the floor in a heap.
Bridget’s hands were clasped together. She prayed and begged to be spared.
Isolde said nothing as she walked up to her sister and pushed her to the ground. With one foot resting on Bridget’s leg, Isolde brought the ax down until there was no longer the sound of Bridget’s screams, only the squish of the ax connecting with flesh. Isolde stepped inside Hugo’s empty stall, obscuring herself from view. She knew Myna would come. Isolde would be ready.
As the sun came down, the girl entered the barn. Isolde was still as her sister sobbed over Bridget and their mother. Myna knelt beside her mother and cried. She pulled her hair out in clumps. Isolde stepped out of the stall, walked toward her sister, and cleaved at her side. The girl spit up blood onto their mother’s cheek and fell face down.
Isolde pulled her brother’s and father’s bodies, one by one, into the barn. She closed the door and locked it behind her.
She walked into the warmth of the house. She washed her hands. She was starving. A fresh pot of stew sat on the stove. She grabbed a bowl and poured herself a generous portion. Then she walked upstairs and took a bath. She could hear Willem, her nephew, crying as she washed her hair. When she was done, she walked into Bridget’s room. It was more spartan than she thought it would be, but there were plenty of clothes to choose from. She grabbed the warmest dress and undergarments she could find and put them on.
Willem was in a crib beneath the window. The baby’s cries lessened when she stood over him. She picked him up and held him. When he stopped crying, she changed his diaper. She went downstairs and fetched a bottle from the refrigerator. After he was fed, Willem fell into a deep sleep.
Isolde climbed beneath the blankets on Bridget’s bed. She sighed at the warmth. Her own bed, her old bed, was lumpy and her comforter had holes in it.
The next morning, Isolde made coffee. She had some stew. She found a bag and packed some clothes, enough for her and Willem. She grabbed a few bottles and packed food for them. She used her mother’s makeup to at least cover her acne. Isolde grabbed anything she thought would sell.
She pulled her backpack on and bundled up the baby. She stepped out of the house and onto the road, her footprints disappearing in the freshly fallen snow.

Five Novels That Inspire Me

Last updated on: Published by: Amanda Ross 0

One of the most common questions anyone writing a novel is asked is “where do you get your inspiration?” It seems like an easy enough question, but the reality is it’s not. There are levels to it. One minute an author could be inspired by Their Eyes Were Watching God and another minute they could be in awe of the way the clouds move through the sky. Inspiration is also an elusive, cruel mistress. Sometimes it comes in waves and other times it doesn’t come at all. But as Ray Bradbury said, sometimes you have to go after inspiration with a club, and that means finding it where and when you can and through multiple mediums.

 

An obvious source of inspiration is other books. I don’t agree with everything Stephen King writes, but I do think that writers must write a lot and read even more. Though I read slower when I’m drafting a novel, I’m usually toggling between two books – one I’m reading and one I’m listening to. I’ve read a lot of books over the years, but here are five that have inspired me thus far.

 

Horrorstor – Grady Hendrix

I’ve always been a fan of mixing humor into anything, and that’s what drew me to Grady Hendrix novels. Horrorstor, a book about a haunted store that’s essentially a stand-in for Ikea, is a dark and funny and inventive book that showed me how making things funny could punch up the horror or fantasy of it all. His propensity to add in mixed media, i.e. product manuals, voicemails, and flyers as means of worldbuilding, also inspired me. If you’ve read To Astera, With Love, you know what I’m talking about. I recommend Horrostor, as well as My Best Friend’s Exorcism, and The Southern Book Club’s Guide To Slaying Vampires.

 

The Raven Boys – Maggie Stiefvater

There’s a reason The Raven Cycle series has been optioned for a television show – it’s such a damned good story with plenty of worldbuilding and characters you root for throughout. This novel follows Blue Sargent as she and a group of pre-school boys – Adam, Ronan, Noah, and Gansey – search for the lost Welsh king, Glendower. The worldbuilding in this series is wonderful, and I especially love how seamlessly Stiefvater blends the fantasy with the everyday lives of the characters. I was really inspired by the different myths and mystical elements of this series, as well as how easily the story progresses from one book to another.

 

Parable of The Sower – Octavia E. Butler

I first read Parable of The Sower in high school. It was an experience I know many Black and brown people can relate to – reading a book with a main character who looks like you. I loved the dystopian of it all, and I was really inspired by how Butler never let up on the characters. At each point in Lauren and the other survivors’ trip north, they are forced to reckon with something or someone. I took the lesson through to my own work, when Mercury and his friends travel across the country.

 

A Blade So Black – L.L. McKinney

Reading A Blade So Black was another transformative experience for me. Reading Alice’s story and the scene after her father dies where she runs from the hospital made me feel a way because I know that loss – my father passed away in 2008 suddenly. It’s something you never quite get over, it just becomes your new normal. I loved how McKinney gave a fresh take on the Alice in Wonderland tale, all while putting a streetsmart Blerd at the helm. Also, I’m a sucker for worldbuilding, and this is another one that blends fantasy with the real world so seamlessly.

 

The Coldest Girl In Coldtown – Holly Black

In this novel, vampirism has become a pandemic. Humans who are bitten by vampires turn “Cold” and are sent to “Coldtowns.” After waking up at a party next to her ex-boyfriend who is turning Cold and a strange vampire, Tana journeys to the nearest Coldtown thinking she might soon turn Cold herself. I loved the way Black played with the vampire-as-a-public-health-concern conflict and how campy the Coldtowns were – there’s even a vampire there who live streams nearly everything. I was inspired by the government getting involved in something supernatural like this, a fact that inspired me to put a vampire in the highest office of the land.

 

What novels inspire you? Let me know in the comments.