“How is your day going, sweetie?” Glancing up from her seat at the piano, Mrs. Elsberry’s warm smile has all the stress fading away. She’s never been my teacher, but she’s always been my second mom. Since I’ve never had a mother, I guess you could say I borrowed her from my best friend.
Taunts and insults, a nonstop assault causes the hairs on the back of my neck to stand on end. “Hey, jackass!” shouts a dickwad from down the hallway, so I hurry into the classroom and shut the door behind me. The chaos is deadened, but it still leaks around the hinges and beneath the door. The door would have to be a vault to close out all the teenage angst, drama, rampant hormones, and funky ball sweat.
Welcome to Fairport High.
Home of golden boys, jocks, beauty queens, mean girls, geeks, and the dregs of society destined for a lifetime of towniedom.
Take a guess on which category I belong.
If you’re unsure, I’m hiding out in the music room until the hallways empty, before making my escape to the student parking lot.
“SSDD,” is muttered with a shrug as I shoulder my backpack higher up. One thing about having a teacher as a second mom, there’s no energy wasted on explaining acronyms. If they don’t learn the acronyms, their life at school would be a lamb to the slaughter. “Daily Taryn Update, Mrs. Elsberry.”
“Sweetie, if I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times. Call me–”
“Karen,” is spoken over top of her in a teasing lilt. “When I’m at your house it sounds normal, but here at school…” is trailed off.
Moving farther into the music room, I fiddle with the strings on a wooden guitar. At the beginning of the school year, Karen told me to call it an acoustic guitar, and I’m always lured to touch it. Just an itching craving beneath my skin that drives me to strum, the thin metal an odd texture against the pads of my fingertips.
“Taryn’s good,” is whispered as I gaze down at the guitar sitting on a wooden stool. The music room is an interesting place, so different from all the other classrooms, besides the sorcery in the industrial arts wing. There’s a stage with rows of chairs, each has its own music stand. There are open spaces meant for larger instruments. The piano is centrally located, Karen’s happy place is on the bench. Then there is this lonesome stool, set off to the side near the wall closest to the door, situated in a watcher’s position, invisible and irrelevant and hidden… unnecessary.
A secondary character in the novel of my own life, never destined to be the main character.
A wraith in everyone else’s lives.
“She’s obsessed with Billy– not a good idea. The guy is a complete jackass, but she doesn’t see what we all see.” The thin wire feels foreign, the grooves of my fingerprint hypersensitive to the pressure. The twang is sharp, a shudder rolling through my body as goose bumps instantly erupt. Even my ears have an odd, unexplainable reaction. A humming reverberation.
“Desiree and I tried to talk sense into Taryn, but she’s just so happy that someone’s giving her attention. If I push it, I know she’ll cut me loose. She needs me. So I’ll wait until Billy torches her, while stalking the shadows with a fire extinguisher. Even Sage tried to get through her head.”
Do I feel like a traitor for talking shit about my best friend to her mother?
My mother is dead.
Devon’s my brother.
There’s this sense of silence in a family, where if you speak out, it’s a betrayal. Devon and Mom taught me that it’s stupid to keep your mouth shut. Taryn taught me the same. Mental illness is an illness, not a mark of shame. If someone had a broken bone, what would be the shame in telling their mother so they could get some help? The silence is admitting there is something to be ashamed over, a secret kept.
As I spill my guts, I continue to pluck the strings, no song created other than an assault on my ears and the destruction of an artform.
How can you lose a mother when you never had her?
Father? Mother? Dad? Mom? Daddy? Mommy?
Who are these fictionalized personifications?
Mother and father…
Brothers times three.
How do you lose someone who never saw you hanging on the family tree?
Relationships withered when squandered.
Parched yet over-watered.
Too much or never enough, left in a constant state of dehydration or ascites.
You can’t lose someone who never saw you.
My needs are irrelevant. Taryn needed Devon more. Devon needed to mentor Taryn. Taryn needed Essie for a purpose. Essie needed Taryn to take Bethany’s place at Primp. I lost my brother, my best friend, and my sister-in-law, all in one fell swoop.
If you love someone, you don’t turn jealous when you lose them. If you love someone enough, love them more than your pride and arrogance, you’re happy they found exactly what they needed to find.
I lost them, but I picked up a discarded mother. Seems like a win-win to me.
“Taryn loves Primp– she’s doing good.” Karen and Taryn don’t talk, so I am their go-between.
They live in the same house, revolve around each other like opposing magnets or a planet and its moon, but they never interact. Karen doesn’t get Taryn. Taryn doesn’t get Karen. They love each other, but they don’t like each other. They both like and love me. The mother and sister I never had.
“Raven, sweetie?” Karen whispers from beside me, hesitant to touch me after being burned so many times by Taryn. I’ve seen my best friend fling her mother’s hand off her, then shout in a rage. I don’t judge because I’ve seen it all before with Devon.
Snapping out of the fixation I have with the wood, glue, and metal fashioned into an instrument, I turn to Karen with a genuine smile. Then I wrap an arm around her waist and rest my head on her shoulder, needing the attention and affection like water or air.
Dad has always been touchy feely. The man runs around kissing women on their mouths, women who aren’t his wife. As long as Clover and those women understand it, who am I to judge. Odder yet, he kisses his own sister on the mouth and shamelessly cuddles with her. He’s clingy and over-affectionate with his children. But ever since Devon happened, Dad’s been spread thin.
Around the time Dad started smothering Clover with affection to get her to warm up, around the time Dad went out of his way to constantly seek out Willow, Violet, and Seth, making sure they felt a part of the family, he stopped touching me.
Overcompensation is the term Taryn called it when I vented– my best friend is drowning in therapy-speak, thanks to a stint in a rehab center, support groups, and weekly therapy sessions. Whatever you call it, Dad is spread thin with all the people he needs to cuddle and coddle, to where he forgot I existed, just as he did before Clover and her kids came into our lives.
The lyrics weave inside my head, immortalized the first chance I can get.
Screaming. Screaming. Screaming.
Their voice is heard above my belted scream.
Sucking. Sucking. Sucking.
Sucking all the attention like oxygen from air.
Suffocating. Suffocating. Suffocating.
Deprived of lifegiving support.
Need a ventilator– an injection of attention.
Fading. Fading. Fading.
Fading away into a translucent wraith.
The addict. The golden boy. The mean girl. The beauty queen… The genius. The superstar. The foundling. The zygote.
They find no competition from a wraith like me.
From a wraith like me.
Fingers move my hair out of the way, a palm rubbing a circle in the center of my back. Lips press against the top of my head, sigh heating my scalp. “Raven, have you thought about taking lessons?”
“On what?” Eyes flicking toward the clock, I have to get out to the parking lot before my siblings steal my car. Wouldn’t be the first time. Won’t be the last. If I bitch, I get told to learn how to roll with the punches– they don’t get told how wrong it is to jack a bitch’s car and make her fucking walk.
“The guitar, sweetie.” Karen squeezes me tightly, then steps away, sensing the time better than I do. “I can set up lessons for you. One of my ex-students approached me about donating some time for students I believe have promise.”
“I’m not one of your students, and I have no promise.” Snorting, I step away toward the door. “I better get going before I have to walk home.”
“Just think about it, Raven.” Karen rests her knuckles on the stool beside the guitar, a defeated expression withering her face. Oversized clothing, drab and dowdy, hiding her body and her personality. Graying limp hair hangs around her face as a shield. Karen is terrified I’ll fade into the background noise like she has.
“I love you,” are the three easiest words I’ve ever spoken to the woman.
“Oh, sweetie!” The ache in Karen’s voice has me turning out of the door and running down the hallways as quickly as possible, because she wished those words came from her daughter’s mouth.
Her real daughter.
If Karen is my second mom, then that means I’m only her second daughter. Her daughter’s best friend since kindergarten. Nothing more than an accident of birth order, forcing us into the same classes until adulthood.
Running in a blur, I charge out the side doors, nearly taking out a freshman who looks lost and confused. Probably missed the bus and is experiencing the mass panic of what the fuck now. Sprinting around cars ducking and diving out of parking spots, everyone in a rush to gain a few extra minutes before the parental units turn into helicopter parents.
A feral growl roars up my throat, feet pounding the pavement. Sliding into a skid to my car door, I smack my palm on the window one, two, three times. Looking sheepish, Ozzy manually rolls the window down on my vintage Camaro.
AKA, the Pussy Magnet.
The beauty is probably worth more than our house.
“Out!” is an order as I hitch my finger over my shoulder. I’m not usually an asshole to Ozzy but this is getting on my last nerve. It’s one thing to give up your entire family, but I draw the line at John Mason’s legacy.
“Sorry!” Seth has compassion enough to actually look apologetic. Little boy cheeks puffing up as he sends a sheepish smile my way.
“No room back here.” Violet leans forward, hands possessively curling around Ozzy’s shoulders from behind, making sure to press him into the seat– a nonverbal signal that his ass is to stay in my seat. “You’re too big to fit.”
“Seth can sit on Violet’s lap. Ozzy can squeeze in back there.” Glaring at them, trying to get them to move, as the eldest of this group, now that Dev and Ren have flown the coop, they don’t fucking listen to me.
Weston sits in the passenger seat, totally tuning me out because he’s watching Sage’s car like a lovesick hawk. After making sure that hormonal asshole survived the last fourteen years of his existence, this is the thanks I get?
“Rae,” Ozzy drawls, sounding put out and frustrated, as if I’m the problem. One car. MY car. Four seats. Five people. The math doesn’t compute if they believe I’m the odd man out. A car that has been in the Mason family for fifty years. I’m the ONLY Mason in this parking lot with a goddamn driver’s license.
“God, don’t let her in here– she stinks.” Violet’s nasty, mean girl, vindictive tone does nothing to me, at least not on the outside. If I showed any reaction, it would only get worse. “Dad–” that stings more than anything. Dad replaced me with a pretty version who asks nonstop questions about police procedure. “Dad says you need to start dressing better. He thinks you’re depressed. I say you’re a faker trying to get his attention.”
“Rae.” Ozzy starts again, running over top of Violet. A hand swats him upside the head, with Seth choking on a laugh. “I have to go to the station as soon as I drop them off at home. I need the car– you don’t.”
That’s the problem with blended families. It was four to three, with Ozzy coming on as the swing vote. But since Dev and Ren moved on, with Weston completely duh over Sage and automatically siding with the twins, I thought I’d find an ally with the outsider.
See what thinking got me?
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Spittle flies as I curl down to fit my head inside the car window, glaring at the twins in the backseat and my nonresponsive traitorous brother in the passenger seat. “This is my car. You’re making me walk home because those spoiled fucking brats won’t shove their asses together… I repeat. In. My. Fucking. Car.”
“Sorries!” Violet sings with sadistic glee, blonde ponytail bobbing on top of her head– how I’d love to yank it. “Outvoted!”
“Sorry, Rae.” Seth only half-ass means it. It’s good to be in the majority. Safe. Cozy. Powerful.
“I’ve got to get to work, Rae.” Shifty gaze and quivering tone, Ozzy is getting impatient with me, like I’m the goddamn problem here.
“Huh? What’s up?” Weston comes back to the land of the living, voice pitched with indifference. “Oh. Hey, Rae. Don’t think you’ll fit back there. Sorry.”
“See, even your brother thinks you’re a fat ass!” Cackling, Violet leans back in the seat, spreading out to show me how very much room there is that would fit my very fat ass. Her palms slap at the back of the seat, gaining Ozzy’s attention.
“Fuck y’all.” Leaning upright, head no longer in the car. “Just fuck y’all.”
Deep breaths. Very deep breaths. Stalking away as my car prowls out of the parking lot like a phantom, I make a beeline toward Sage and his GAYSAGE-plated car.
Are my siblings cunts? Yeah, they are. Everyone enrolled at Fairport High is a cunt. That’s how adolescence works, right? Clover is always whispering that to Dad, usually to stop the Pink Taco Hut from imploding around us.
Leaning against Sage’s car, I’m prepared to wait, because it’s a two-mile walk home and the sole on my sneaker is doing an open mouth impression after a nightmarish gym class.
Violet sees me as competition. Competition for Dad. Competition for Clover. Competition for our brothers. Competition for the new baby. Competition for Ozzy.
I’ve never had a mom. Never had a dad. Always had to be the mother and the father. I’m not sure why Violet is jealous. She’s always had a mom– still has one. She was raised by a dad that kissed the ground she walked on. I feel awful that Sam died, because Dad loved Sam like the brother he never had. Now Violet has Dad too.
For me, Clover is spread too thin to be my mom. The baby is about to pop out, and Clover doesn’t have time for my shit. Dad is spread too thin to step up and actually act like my dad. He’s too worried the twins and Willow won’t feel accepted, to the point he kisses their asses and forgets I exist.
It’s my brothers that I blame. Weston hears the bullshit Violet and Seth say to me, and he just sits there. The worst is when he laughs, then says I can’t take a joke when I get mad. I feel betrayed. Weston sides with my bullies. He thinks he’s exempt from all the bullshit Devon, Ren, and I had to endure to raise him because he’s the baby.
Then there’s Ren, who’s so far up Willow’s ass, if someone asked him about his sister, Ren would automatically think they meant Violet.
Devon. Dev’s got too much shit to worry about. I’m not worth a second thought in comparison.
“Hey, Rae.” Even frazzled and half jogging, not a white hair is out of place on Sage’s perfect noggin, as he heads straight at me. “Hope you’re not looking for a ride, because I’ve got to run to the hospital to grab something from my mom to bring to Ginny.”
“Oh, yeah… no problem.” Stepping away from the car, I wave over my shoulder. “See you tomorrow.” I try not to get to bent out of shape that one of my best friends doesn’t realize it would take no less than three minutes out of his way to drive me home.
Aunt Ginny has Opal now, so she forgot she was my aunt. As Clover’s best friend, Aunt Ginny has always seen the twins as her niece and nephew. She still spends time with them, completely forgetting I exist. Now that Aunt Ginny has Opal, Opal has Sage, Sage has Aunt Ginny, and I no longer have Sage.
The lyrics manifest in front of my tear-blurred eyes as I cross the parking lot with my head down.
Everyone’s got a life.
They’ve got shit to do.
Easily forgotten. Forgotten… Forgotten.
No time for me.
Someone so unnecessary.
Existed when they needed me.
Moving on. Moving forward.
People worthy of their time.
Everyone’s got a life.
They’ve got shit to do.
Easily forgotten. Forgotten… Forgotten.
No time for me.
Someone so unnecessary.
Making it about half a mile, my ass lands on the curb, sneaker torn off my foot and my backpack spilling on the sidewalk. With a heavy sigh, I look around, dozens of cars passing closely by, filled mostly with my laughing and pointing classmates. The elementary kids are pushing and shoving and yelling and giggling at each other on the sidewalk behind me.
A rock in the water, they ripple to avoid me.
With vicious tugs, I yank and pull and snarl at my shoelace. Once it’s free, I slam my foot back into my sneaker, then tie the shoelace tightly around it, hoping the floppy sole will keep its mouth shut as I walk. The flop… flop… flop… was driving me nuts, but it wasn’t as painful as the gravel grinding under my sock.
God, never thought I’d wish for my old life back. Not only is that house closer than the new one, at least the people seemed to give a shit about me. Ya know, because if I wasn’t there, they wouldn’t have clean clothes, a shit-stain-free toilet, or someone to ask them if they did their homework.
Devon was the dad, literally beating the fuck out of anyone who messed with us.
Ren was the distracted working mom who cooked, and I was mom without a life that cleaned and nagged.
Weston was the good, helpful kid who never rocked the boat.
Dad would come home, relieved we were still breathing, happy we were still eating, and surprised we didn’t burn the house down and actually attended school. Dad would fall into his recliner. Ren would give him a beer. I’d hand him his plate. Devon would regale him with the tales of the day. Weston would sit at his feet like a good boy. Dad would be out like a light in less than a half hour.
How times change.
Dad promised better times.
He just failed to say it would be better for him, not me.
Someone so unnecessary.
“Get in!” is called out a window, tires crunching on gravel as a truck rolls to a stop inches from my toes. “C’mon, Lady Mason.”
One of the first thing this boy ever said to me was Lady Mason.
Bent down to pick up the socks and sneakers scattered around the living room, I hear the door whispering open behind my back. “Thank, God!” Flustered, Weston’s been driving me bonkers tonight. “Ren, you’ve got to take the kid out back and run him ragged, before I suffocate him with his filthy socks.”
“Kid,” Ren warns the oversized toddler slumped on the sofa, upset that he’s not old enough to go to the game by himself. “Don’t rush time. You’ll be on the field longer than the rest of us.”
“I’m bored. Already did my homework.” Grumpy and blaming me, nothing is worse than a resentful eleven-year-old. “If Dev would come outta whatever hole he’s hiding in, he woulda took me. But Rae here–”
“Sorry, little asshole.” Snarling, I toss his socks and sneakers in the general vicinity of his annoying face. Reacting as quick as a snake, West grabs them right out of the air. “I’ll get right on aging-up to sixteen, but you’re gonna have to wait a few years before I start bussing your overgrown ass around nonstop, like I’m some soccer mom without a life of her own.”
“Football!” shouts from three boys, and one of ‘em ain’t mine. “Soccer is not in our vocabulary. That game doesn’t exist.”
“Shit!” Pale skin flushed crimson, I jerk upright, because my ass was facing the door.
The ass in question is covered with a silly saying. Juicy. I found a pair of tight sweatpants in Mom’s stuff. A billion years ago, not sure why women displayed sayings over their asses, making it look as wide as a billboard. But Mom had a few pairs and I liked how soft the material felt.
Glancing over my shoulder, I glare at Weston, then my eyes flick to Ren ghosting in the doorway. “You dicks could have said we had a visitor.”
“Well, hello there… Lady Mason.” The boy snares all my attention, but it’s the voice that rolls along my spine and takes root.
“Chill.” Ren smacks the smaller boy in the chest with the side of his arm, not that the boy is small by any stretch. Ren is just that big. “Raven is off-limits to everyone, especially new buddies.”
“Huh?” My confusion has the boy laughing at me, a crawling, smoky sound. Across the living room, Weston watches me watch the boy while the boy watches me back.
“I need food!” Ren calls out, always super excitable when he gets back from a game. He’s in the kitchen in two steps, leaving his friend behind. “Now.”
“Me too?” the boy directs at me, asking if he can stay like I’m the lady of the house. Multi-colored hair is flipped in his face, hiding his eyes. Blond but there’s golden and ginger streaks with darker roots. I wonder if it’s shaved underneath– I bet it is.
God, he’s pretty.
Those lips. That voice. That dimple. I bet the eyes are just as captivating.
Aunt Isis said the boy-crazy gene would activate someday soon. Aunt Ginny laughed, said she sensed I didn’t have a girl-crazy gene, that’s for damn sure.
Yeah, this boy activated it. Big time.
“Sure, always plenty of spaghetti.” Looking around, I’m embarrassed by how stinky the house is right now. “Always smells like ball sweat in here.” As soon as the words are out, I cover my entire face with my palms.
“Ball sweat, you say…” the boy is now inches from me, doing the world’s slowest crawl toward the kitchen. “From footballers or…” is drawled out and left dangling.
“From actual sacks?” Weston is going to die tonight. “Been sniffing nutsacks in your spare time, sis?”
“Pretty sure Lady Mason meant it was sweat from football players,” the boy comes to my rescue. “But the sweat definitely is riper from the groin region.”
Giggling at myself, my face is about to burst like an overripe tomato. “The boys reek, but–” shuddering, the boy is far too close, smelling far too good.
Just a small sliver of a pale lavender iris peers out at me from a hank of hair. Yeah, those eyes have to stay hidden for sanity’s sake. The boy would have every girl who met him trailing behind him everywhere he went.
“It’s nice to meet you, Lady Mason.”
“What’s your name?” tongue twisted in a knot, my belly is doing summersaults. Skin suddenly tight and hot.
“Yo, Stone!” Ren calls from the kitchen, answering that question. “Get your ass in here. Raven is not interesting. At. All. Oh, Langdon Ssstoooooone, how much pasta you want?”
“Oh, shit!” Watching the boy run into the kitchen to get my brother to stop hollering, I realize who is inside this house.
“Oh, shit!” is repeated again, causing my baby brother to hit me with taunting laughter. “That’s Jackson Stone’s kid, isn’t it?” And I just made a fool of myself. While advertising the naughty word Juicy across my backside.
For a few seconds, I wondered what it would feel like to like-like a boy, but it would be ridiculous to like this boy. Something switches off inside my heart, protecting me from the future legend standing in my kitchen. This boy is destined to break hearts after pounding their pussies into annihilation.
“Lady Mason. Lady Mason,” calls out from inside the cab. “Looks like you have a flat tire on that sneaker of yours.”
Voice smoky smooth, never failing to elicit an embarrassing shudder to roll along my spine and an eargasm to cause an auditory explosion. I’m not special– he is. Langdon Stone has this effect on every member of the global population.
“Ah, here comes Pebbles to the rescue.” Chuckling underneath my breath, I reach out to grab my backpack, then hobble run around the front of the truck. Yeah, my amazing idea with the shoestring made it worse. Go me!
“Seriously, I could kiss you right now,” is an offhand comment as I climb up into the truck. Freezing for a second, I realize how that sounded.
Stone is used to everyone bowing at his feet, getting tongue-tied, and pretty much losing their shit. I’ve developed partial immunity since he’s Ren’s best friend and has seen me through a few terrible stages of development.
“Yeah, so forget I said that.” Snorting at my ridiculousness, I click my seatbelt. “I meant to say thanks, that is.”
“No problem, Lady Mason.” Violet eyes hidden beneath that insane hair are focused on the road, while those croon-worthy lips are curled, creating that inherited dimple a few generations of women have swooned over with Jackson Stone. “It was on my way. Besides…” trails off as Stone pulls up alongside the curb to the Pink Taco Hut.
World’s shortest ride, where I wished it was longer while in the presence of a future legend.
See how fast that was? See how fast Sage could have dropped me off? See how short of a ride someone would have had to sit on someone else’s lap inside my own goddamn car? See how long it would have taken Ozzy to drop the twins off and then pick me up at the school, only to drop me back off at the house– maybe an extra five to seven minutes. Those few minutes ample payment for nonstop borrowing my wheels as if they’re his.
“Thank. You.” Turning to Stone with a serious expression on my face, I try not to cry. “I mean it.” Then I reach down to tear my useless sneaker off my foot.
“Anytime, Lady Mason.” I’d love to think the smile Stone gives me is just for me, but that’s what makes him so intoxicating. One look, one word, one smile, and you honestly believe he only has eyes for you. It’s the Stone legacy at play, and the exact reason he’ll go double-platinum with his debut album.
“Mason would kick me in the nuts if I treated his sister like shit.” Stone means well, so I just nod and smile, as if he didn’t just jab a rusty blade in the center of my back and twist.
“Thanks!” is a perky shout as I hop out of the truck, hiding the bullshit lurking beneath. Stone’s truck rumbles down the street as I hobble across the front yard to the porch, backpack swung over my shoulder with my sneaker dangling from my fingertips.
I ignore the incessant throb, because that Mason in question wouldn’t kick anyone in the nuts for being mean to his sister, not when he’s in love with her biggest bully. The Mason in question hasn’t spoken a word to me in over a month. Oh, Ren’s been in the same location as me, but he hasn’t seen nor heard me.
Not sure when that happened. Maybe it was always happening, but the influx of Websters in our family only made it more obvious.
Yanking the other sneaker off my foot, I pitch the pair in the outdoor garbage can, then walk soundlessly across the porch floorboards. Devon is silent in his footfalls, and so am I.
Sneaking into the house, I make sure the screen door doesn’t creak, because I instinctively sense they’re all bashing the piss out of me. If they do it once, they most certainly do it every single time.
I hope they prove me wrong.
Wraith Part One, Two, & Three will be available on Halloween but you can pre-order on Amazon today. Don't forget to add to Goodreads & Bookbub. Click Here for Amazon links
As I work on the ending of Wraith (Blended #11) I know readers will think that I am undoing any good feeling toward specific characters by the narrators' perspectives on past narrators. (Ravon Mason is the main narrator. However, in the last portion of the novel, we (the reader) hear from three others)
Other than shown via other perspectives from past novels, readers do not know much about Raven. She was the daughter/stepdaughter, the niece, the sister/stepsister/sister-in-law. A quintessential teenage girl.
Raven Mason is not an unreliable narrator. She sees situations from both her perspective and the other parties'. So it's difficult for her to both be angry and empathetic at the expense of her self-respect, self-esteem, and self-worth. I felt this something many struggle with, especially women, and wished to put the burden to paper.
Reality is perception.
As human beings, we are inherently flawed. I've strived to make sure my characters are subject to the human condition. While in their heads, they justify their actions, and we (the reader) take their sides. They are not good nor bad, merely written to be human. I do this across all of my series.
Since we (the readers) tend to take sides while deep inside the narrator's mind, I worry as Raven makes peace with members of her family and in her community. I fear that our (the readers') perception of these characters will alter, no longer resonating with them or enjoying them as characters. While my purpose is to reveal 3D character, flaws and all.
I did this deliberately, as I think we need to mull over the motivations of the people in our lives before we take sides or gossip about NOYB topics. Let's be honest here. We are not saints. We all notoriously do this, especially within a group dynamic. We gossip. We pick sides. We generally do not try to be empathetic to the one being vented over or gossiped about, then we use that gossip as if it's gospel.
This is the plight of Raven Mason, the one vented about by past narrators. The teen girl with the messy bedroom, shown as entitled and spoiled and dramatic by narrators who were either not close to Raven or had their own agendas. This is a dynamic I've shown with Lisa Kline, Tina Kline, Nina Stone, Essie Mason, and now Raven Mason. It is a dynamic that most likely occurs with women as the target. Just as in past installments, as we face the fact that we (the reader) listened to the gossip without using deductive reasoning, and then were surprised when the targeted finally has a voice that they were not at all anything as they were perceived to be.
During Wraith, it will appear as if Violet, Malcolm, Ginny, Opal, Beth, Oliver, and Taryn are on my hit parade. Taryn's contribution is a bit more complex than the others, so I'm not offering any tidbits about it.
While Violet's behavior is not excused, and will be showcased in Wretched (Blended #12) Raven does give her a pass due to her age. I hope this will put readers at ease and not go into Violet's novel with a bad taste in their mouth, so to speak.
I actually wavered in a chicken and the egg scenario on which book to publish first, Wraith or Wretched. I felt as if maybe readers would be more sympathetic during Wraith if they knew Violet's justifications and reasoning, but then I realized Raven wasn't privy to the interworking of Violet's mind, and Wraith is how it impacted Raven.
After all, a major premise of Wraith is how Hurt People Hurt People. Raven steps out of the cycle, refusing to hurt others after being hurt herself. While Raven could sympathize with Violet, I felt as if I published Wretched first it would undermine the long-term damage Violet wrought to Raven, as if those meaningless justifications gave Violet a pass to harm Raven, where readers would just shrug it off. So readers may dislike Violet when they open up her novel, but that's more realistic than not.
Malcolm undeniably loves his children, but he was a walking mistake as a parent (since parents are human beings, this is reality most of us face) I do believe that no matter how hurt his eldest children are toward him, the readers will still adore Malcolm as his children still do as well.
Opal & Ginny, even when I wrote Wanton, I felt they were unreliable narrators, as we (the reader) could relate to their situation, but I (the creator) knew the other side of the story. They're not right nor wrong, nor am I trying to dismantle any love the readers have for them. But they are not infallible. They fixate on how events impact themselves while being insensitive to how it impacts others. They are subject to biases. They see what they want to see from their perspective, then run with it. They hold this thought pattern for life. How they see a sixteen-year-old girl will not alter when she is thirty, which is something many of us do. Not good nor bad, just being realistic. A reader can still identify with them while simultaneously seeing it from another perspective.
I won't even attempt to explain the dynamic Raven has with Oliver, as I've written two books about it, one of which is a billion pages long. Ha!
Beth, who we last heard from in Wonder. To avoid spoilers, if you know the content of Wonder, you can read between the lines. Dr. Bethany Essex has some issues, and those issues impact her professionally and personally. If you're current, you know Beth has a tight bond with Opal, and through Opal, with Ginny. It's all in good fun- we've all done it. Toss in some wine and have a laugh at someone else's expense. Just imagine Opal & Ginny, sitting around, gossiping about NOYB topics, venting with the girls, and how that might alter how Beth sees Raven, then how seeing gossip as gospel would impact Beth both professionally and personally. This dynamic is also explored in both Wraith & Wretched. Love me some Beth- I'm not doing her dirty. But us ladies, we all get how spilling the tea works. We're empathizing with the person venting, and that person venting has a vested interest in us being on their side, as they unintentionally manipulate the situation to get us on their side. While this sounds like a complex dynamic, it's truly not. Messy is realistic. Welcome to Envy-Landia.
Raven is not a Mary Sue doormat, but in such a large family dynamic, members slip through the cracks. Those who are not squeaky wheels are often ignored and sometimes forgotten. Wraith presents complex family dynamics, where as long as you are benefitting, your perception of the black sheep alters to suit your own benefit- as long as you're getting something out of it, you won't speak up in defense. Through Raven, I try to show how that makes them just as culpable, more so perhaps.
While Raven truly is not a black sheep, she is surrounded by people who do not like to self-reflect. When they look at her, all they see is a mirror, so it's easier to either avoid her at all costs or tear her down so they don't have to face their own self-truths. *I'm looking at you, Ginny.
Readers will feel as if I pulled the rug from out beneath the feet of a few beloved characters. "C'mon, Erica! They're awesome!" Of course, they're awesome. It's First-Person, we (the readers) are deep inside their minds. They think themselves awesome, and justified, and right, and kind. This entire post is about how awesome, justified, and right I am. /s JK.
It's been nearly a decade since I wrote or read anything in Ginny or Opal's voice, yet I distinctly remember how difficult it was to stay in character at times. While wishing to shout at Opal, "You can't say that to Sage or in front of Sage!" Self-reflection was not in her wheelhouse, which was part of the personality traits I created for her. I had to keep in character, where Opal saw herself as in the right, no matter what. How freeing it is to have a character who can voice all the things I wished I could have said in relation to many of these characters. Since Sage is Raven's best friend for life, keep in mind, Sage is the one giving a voice to these things. (Here I am, planting little seeds to grow in a future novel)
I promise I am not issuing character trait lobotomies or rewriting events to suit the current narrator. As an avid rereader, some series or novels reread dozens upon dozens of times when I wish to evoke specific emotions within myself. While I realize many readers do no reread novels, for those that do, they will get a vastly different experience on a reread. After reading the later books (as the series slowly comes to a close) when they go back to the beginning, they will understand the other perspectives, offering an immersive experience.
"C'mon, Malcolm. I love ya man but you've got to be kidding me here! Your children are not free-range chickens!" "Do we need to get you an eye appointment to clear up this blindness you're experiencing?" "Willow Monster, leave Essie alone!" "Willow Monster, leave Clover alone!" "Auggie, do we need another intervention?" and so on and so forth...
Another dynamic explored is various abuses, along with how covert or subtle abuse can be, especially in hidden relationships and within a friendship. If the abuse isn't an eleven, we tend to rationalize or normalize the behaviors. This was a difficult task for me to to be sensitive to all sides, yet also show how all sides are impacted.
Wraith is a long book but it has rapid pacing, which makes it go by quickly. It has a whole host of uncomfortable truths on family, friendship, and relationship dynamics that shift as you age. I wanted my readers to look outside the book at their own lives as they read, and perhaps admit uncomfortable truths about themselves and how they fit into those dynamics.
Here I go, back to writing Raven's fellow narrators on a rampage, who are finding great glee in putting one of these aforementioned character in their place.
Wraith will be available this Halloween.
“How’s the burrito baby?” Monica eyes my blouse as the last bite passes my sour cream smeared lips. Making yum-yum noises, I savor that last swallow in answer, finally noticing why Monica is checking out my assets.
Giggling self-deprecatingly in starts and stops, I snatch a napkin off my desk. “Oops! My chin has a hole in it.”
“Before my mom died…” Monica trails off, struggling to get her emotions in check.
I leave her be. After four years of being best friends, we get each other. She’s a bit too much like I am. I sense Monica will finish her thought when she’s ready. She’ll instinctively know my silence is not disinterest but patience in allowing her to put words to her emotions.
Busying myself by balling up the takeout wrapper, I end up licking a long line down the side of my palm, swallowing the messy salsa instead of using a wet wipe. That wet wipe gets used for a greater purpose.
I may eat like a hog now, never having been this heavy in my entire life, but I am not a slovenly mess. Dabbing at my blouse, I’m relieved it’s printed with a pattern of gray checks to hide the fact that my lunch didn’t seem to find its way into my mouth.
“My mom was built more like…” Yet again, Monica finds herself at a loss for words as she sits across from me on the other side of my desk, hand waffling in the air.
After a lifetime of struggling with an eating disorder, Monica came by that naturally after watching the people around her make a woman’s body size a mitigating factor on whether or not they were a good human being.
Thin meant being worthy.
Worthy of attention and love– worthy as a human being.
Worthy of a man’s attention, when it was the women who weaponized this ideal, not the men. Body size is an indicator on worth, mothers twisting their daughter’s mindsets, with their peers solidifying this toxic ideal.
How do I know this?
You’d be pretty if you were thinner.
Such a pretty girl– too bad she’s so dang fat.
If you’d drop a dress size or three, you might get a boyfriend.
As a former teenage girl, raised in a household with both a mother and a sister who always commented on weight before anything else, currently being bullied by an entire city of ignorant women, I swore to never infect my children. The first time I met Monica, I recognized the agony residing deep inside her, spreading like an infection to every facet of her life.
It was hate-at-first-sight, because we were too much alike, displaying our similar rage at the world in differing ways.
“Fat like me?” I offer as a suggestion, the sting of my own words causing me to flinch in disgust.
To say I’m unhappy would be an understatement, no matter how hard I try not to feed into the ideal. My life is not even remotely what I wish it to be, not in my wildest imaginings. No home to call my own, same with the husbands and kids, I’ve looked to outside sources to vent my emotion.
Restraint is the only relatively healthy outlet for my rage.
Lack of love, comfort, and affection, combined with a plethora of disrespect– both from everyone around me and from myself –the deepest of depressions is cannibalizing my identity. I have no fucking clue who I am anymore, but it’s easier to eat my feelings, since there is no resolution to be found. My happiness doesn’t matter, so fuck it.
Fuck it all to hell.
If I want to eat a burrito the size of a newborn for lunch, it’s better than the alternatives.
Screaming myself to death.
Dissolving into nothingness.
“Mom was a bigger woman– Dad would make snide remarks.” Monica goes introspective on me again, and my mind scrambles to find a way to change the subject. Alec is due any second for our weekly editors meeting, and Monica wouldn’t appreciate him seeing her break down. “Which is how I ended up being susceptible to anorexia.”
A loaded silence descends, as I’ve been on every leg of Monica’s recovery. The bone density issues. The decrease in organ function. The infertility. The insecurity. The lapses and triumphs.
Boatloads of weed, followed by the munchies.
“Mom thought she was fat– Dad didn’t. He was crazy for her. Mom chose to see his commentary in a negative light.” Big brown eyes roll dramatically, no doubt my transparent facial expressions are giving away the never-ending inner monologue playing out inside my head. “Mom had eye-catching cleavage, and Dad would get snarly, because he didn’t like anyone else looking at her assets. Said he wanted to tear out his buds’ throats for thinking about Mom while they jerked off. But there was no hiding those mammoth boobs.”
“Your mouth to God’s ears.” I mutter dramatically, eyes flicking from the buttons straining on my blouse to the ceiling above. “And they only got bigger with every kid.”
Releasing naughty chuckles, Monica looks mighty pleased with herself, since her recovery meant she gained a pretty décolletage. “Mom always had food going down the front of her shirt. Her giggle was naughty as all get out, as she dug her hand down there, all the way past her wrist, plucking whatever the hell she was eating from her bra, then pop it into her mouth. Said feeding her boobs made ‘em bigger.”
“Your mom woulda been my kind of gal.” I murmur in appreciation, after seeing rare glimpses of that type of personality come out of Monica over the years. The more she trusted me, the more she opened herself up to being vulnerable around me.
“How’s your burrito baby?” I manage to smoothly change the subject to something worth celebrating.
“Oh, Lord!” Kayla steps into my office– I never bother to shut the door. I’ve weeded out our staff until they’re only the ones I trust. Ezra never graces Edge Publishing with his presence anymore, completely forgetting we exist. “It’s Taco Tuesday everyday with this woman.”
“It is Tuesday,” flows in a deadpan tone from my lips, just as Kayla comes to stand next to me. Doing her personal assistant duties, she tosses my lunch into the trash, fetches me a fresh bottle of water, then locates the books I wish to discuss with my editors.
“Speaking of burrito babies…” Monica trails off, eyeing Kayla, leaving it up to me to finish what she started.
This was supposed to be a tag-team effort, woman!
“I made you an appointment, Kayla.” Shifting in my seat, I can sense Kayla’s discomfort flavoring the air. “My calls will be directed to Alec’s assistant’s phone for however long you need.”
“What are you talking about?” Looking vaguely betrayed, Kayla turns on me, foamy blonde hair arcing around her shoulders as she moves. “Don’t you need my help? It’s meeting day.”
Meeting day is a big deal at Edge Publishing.
Monica, Alec, and I hole ourselves up in my office from lunch until after-hours on Tuesdays, bitching and moaning about every fucking thing in the literary world. We tend to draw a crowd in the hallway– remember how my door always stays open –and Kayla makes sure we’re properly hydrated.
Across from us, a chair scuffing across the carpet has my eyes flicking to Monica. Standing from her seat, shaky hand slowly working a tan blouse from a pencil skirt, the pale white of a half-slip is revealed. After some maneuvering, the undergarment is push down, and a tiny bump is exposed.
“Oh!” Kayla’s chuckle is lighthearted and warm as she plunks several manuscripts onto the blotter in front of me. “You must’ve had a burrito too! Pretty undies.”
Blushing an innocent pink high in her cheeks, Monica is not pretending to be coy. Palm softly cupping her tummy, she gazes at the top of my desk, rather than looking at Kayla or me.
“You’re the first person I’ve told– besides Kat.” Monica gestures at me, still refusing to look me in the eye. The woman is more modest and private than even I am, and that’s saying something. “I’m older, at risk from decades of anorexia, and struggled with infertility for four years with Dex… so I waited until I hit my second trimester–”
“Oh! My! GAWD!” Kayla squawks in a girly, high-pitched tone, nearly causing my ears to bleed, as she stumbles around my desk. “You’re pregnant! Can I touch it? You’re so teeny tiny– you’d never know.”
Wincing inwardly for Monica, teeny tiny is a trigger for her, one I’ve sympathetically adopted over the years. This is Monica’s healthy weight, so to hear teeny tiny while twelve weeks into a pregnancy… but Monica is nothing but pragmatic. She instinctively knows what Kayla meant, along with the intent, versus getting hung up on her own baggage and twisting a passing comment around as a way to get butthurt.
The shine of nothing but pure, radiant love Kayla is glowing toward Monica erases a phrase that has triggered her countless times over an entire lifetime. Not a negative or positive– fact.
This is Monica’s first, with super tight abdominal muscles– she won’t have much of a baby bump, even close to delivery, and that’s what Kayla meant.
Entire face glowing bright red from embarrassment, Monica isn’t one to enjoy attention. “Dex doesn’t even know yet. I didn’t want to get his hopes up, only to lose it. So I’m going to tell him on Christmas day, then wait until I hit the third trimester to tell anyone but you guys and my dad.”
“Oh, I’m honored.” Beyond touched, Kayla’s palm rests between her heavy breasts, tears of pure joy glistening in her eyes. “I’m so happy for you.” Turning overemotional, she doesn’t understand why Monica is telling her before Dexter.
“All mentions of burrito babies are an inside joke from here on out,” I tease Monica and Kayla. “Unless it’s about me, ‘cuz I love me some food.”
Hiccupping on laughter, Monica struggles to tuck her blouse back in, because she finds me beyond hilarious. The joke goes right over Kayla’s head.
“Don’t you want more kids?” is an accusation if I’ve ever heard one. Brows furrowed in the center of her creamy forehead, Kayla doesn’t understand the pressure I’ve been under. She bought into the lie, even though she’s lived beside me this entire time.
I love the girl to death, but with Aaron as her husband, I cannot trust Kayla with my deepest thoughts, fears, and emotions.
“Put it this way…” Chair creaking as I lean back, the poor thing has too many miles on it, after so many long days and nights for this workaholic. “I haven’t had sex in years… I take my birth control at the same time as my Omeprazole. If I don’t take my meds, I get heartburn by midday. If I get heartburn, I know I missed my birth control… that’s how much I do not want any more children.”
Completely gobsmacked, Kayla gawks at me like she doesn’t recognize me, to the background soundtrack of Monica losing her shit with large guffaws.
Monica knows my deepest, darkest thoughts, fears, and emotions, so she gets the inside joke. No way in hell am I having more kids, because my husbands see me as nothing but a surrogate they can bully and shame into compliance.
This is not the life I wish to lead, not in my wildest imaginings. In another life, with another husband, I would want more children. But this is my lot in life, and I’m not fucking stupid. I hide my birth control in with my heartburn meds, simply because I don’t trust Ezra as far as I can throw him. He’s the type to fiddle with my pills to give Cort what he desires.
More kids carried within my body.
With complete disregard to how used that makes me feel.
“The reason I routed my calls to Sean’s phone is because I made you an appointment with the OBGYN Monica and I share.” Waiting a few seconds to continue, I check to see if what I said is sinking in…
“Kayla?” Reaching across my desk, I take her lovely hand in mine, thumb rubbing soothing circles. “I know everyone tries to say it’s a myth about menstruation cycles syncing up when women spend a lot of time together.”
“I don’t understand.” Eyes glassy, bottom lip trembling, nothing but confusion flows from Kayla.
Monica nods at me as she retakes her seat, praising me for my delivery.
“My sister is four years older than me. Yet another myth I’ve proven correct. Her first period brought on mine not three months later. Hormone surges or whatnot. I was only ten at the time. From then on, even to this day, after decades of not living together, our periods are synced. Ava’s and mine are synced. Since we moved to Misery Castle, just about every female goes hormonal at the same time.”
“Our periods are synced,” flows numbly from deliciously pouty lips. Aaron is one lucky bastard. “I always make sure to buy loads of chocolate and salty snacks for the breakroom as soon as I start spotting.”
She still doesn’t get it.
“Kayla.” After another squeeze to her hand, I let go, then sink back into my chair. “I had my period three weeks ago… and you didn’t.”
Palm flying up to cover her mouth. “Oh!”
“So I made you an appointment for this afternoon– take the rest of the day off. Hell, take the rest of the week off. But I need you to get checked out, just in case it’s lady problems and not an unexpected blessing.”
Knees no longer supporting her, Kayla leans on the corner of my desk, blue eyes the size of teacup saucers. “Is there something in the water? First Syn, then Gretchen, now Monica… me? Who’s next?”
“It sounds like a goddamn fertility deity is hovering over Dominion,” is cursed underneath my breath. “With my luck, I’d end up with an immaculate conception.” Kayla flashes me a confused expression. “Ya know, with the fact I’m on birth control and not having sex.”
“Oh,” flows on a shaky chuckle, palm instinctively doing that baby bump cupping business. “This is unexpected.”
“Am I interrupting?” Alec is hanging in the open doorway, spectacled face checking to see if he’s welcome. “I can come back… but we’re collecting a crowd of busybodies out here,” is directed out into the hallway in a louder than necessary voice to warn Edge Publishing’s office force to get back to their spaces and get to work.
“I’ll get refreshments before I go–”
“Sean’s already on it.” Alec thinks he’s helping, but in actuality, he’s hurting Kayla’s feelings.
That server soul of Kayla’s gets bent out of whack if anyone so much as attempts to wrest her duties away from her. Alec and Sean are being helpful and polite, when Kayla will only see it as them trying to prove they can do her job better than her, meaning her position is unnecessary.
Undoubtedly pregnant, tears are threatening to spill from Kayla’s eyes.
“Sean sucks at feeding and watering us, but I think we can survive, even if we have to clean up after ourselves.” Thank heaven above, Alec is intuitive. “Nobody takes care of us the way you do, Kayla.”
Deft hands fall to land on Kayla’s shoulders, Alec rubbing away any slight he may have dealt. “Not like we can ask Alisha to help us.”
“Hey!” Monica acts offended over Alec insulting her personal assistant, but her voice is heavily laced with amusement. “You got me on that. My cousin even forgets to feed her cat.”
The more often Dr. Zeitler forgot to ride the elevator up to his precious Edge Publishing, which was only created to coddle Cort… the longer Cort has gone without writing a publishable book… there was a changing of the guard so to speak.
I fired the majority of Edge Publishing’s staff without Ezra’s consent, not a single person questioning me for my decisions. They don’t treat me as the boss’s wife. They don’t treat me as the senior editor. They treat me as if this is my company, because they trust me to do right by our authors, the books, and the employees.
Besides Monica and Alec, as they worked closely with me since I arrived in Dominion, Kayla was the only employee who remained that had been hired before I came to be at Edge Publishing.
When surrounded by vultures, I needed a sanctuary to call my own, filled with people I hand-selected due to trust. Every employee at Edge was personally vetted by me, with a stringent probationary period. There was a large turnover rate for about six months, but we’ve been holding strong with the same employees for two years running.
We’re not a huge corporation. We have our squabbles. We eat our crow, offer apologies, then move on, because that’s what should happen in a family.
Monica and Alec’s personal assistants complement one another, which is why we practically allow them to do whatever they want, whenever they want. Kayla is more of their mother hen, even though she’s the youngest of the three.
Alec’s husband of seven years was hired as his personal assistant, only to discover he enjoyed creating ironic memes in his spare time at home. Sean now oversees our social media graphics, as I didn’t want to step on any toes in our graphics department.
Alisha was hired as Monica’s personal assistant. Her only employable quality was that she would listen to her boss, because she is the younger, only cousin to a very controlling Monica. Alisha is from New Jersey, the epitome of exactly what you’d expect from that description. She’s not much on working, so we tossed her ass on a sofa with a laptop and gallons of Diet Coke, then let her loose on social media. Alisha is a goddess when it comes to exposure for Edge Publishing and our authors, getting views and likes through the roof.
Monica, Alec, and I have Vent Tuesdays. We bottle up everything from the weekend, as that is when we can best concentrate on just reading, without outside needs in the office demanding our attention. Monday is a no-go, since that is Satan’s day. Tuesday fit the bill best.
Alisha, Sean, and Kayla go out on Friday nights for a drink and calorie-laden appetizers. We pretend it’s not Vent Friday, where the three of them diss the hell out of their bosses after a hard work week.
“I better get going then.” Kayla leans down to kiss my cheek in goodbye, then flashes the office a blinding smile, so filled with adoration and happiness, it’s hard not to have those emotions radiate to my cold, dead heart.
“Call us!” Monica orders just as Kayla slips out into the hallway, an order that will be heeded, because Kayla is conscientious and respectful.
“I have so much to talk about.” Giddy, Alec swaggers over to the far side of my office to fetch a cushioned armchair from the seating area. I did the same for Monica when she arrived, shuffling the hardback chairs to the side of the doorway. Pregnant ladies shouldn’t have to sit across from their boss like a naughty child in the principal’s office.
“I’ll get that,” flows in a gravelly voice a second before Sean steps into the room.
“For shit’s sake!” Alec snaps back, head whipping to the side. The husbands have an odd dynamic, which seems to change with the tides. Not once have I seen them touch outside of neccessity. “I’m not weak.”
Mutt and Jeff.
Alec is a dinky, geeky fellow, with a quick mind and a tongue as sharp as a knife’s blade. Sarcastic, witty, and funny as all hell, Alec and I get along famously. Sean is a mountain of a man, with flannel and a beard, but he’s not playing a role like a hipster. Sean was a stay-at-home husband, working on crafty things he sells on Etsy, before deciding to put in a half-day working at Edge. The ties that bind is the simple fact that those ironic memes Sean was creating were on the verge of being caustic in their humor.
When two assholes collide– the pair met because Sean made a meme out of an image Alec posted, and the rest they say is history.
They bicker like a litter of cats trapped in a sack, not realizing they’re fighting for the same things. Watching this over the past few years has shown me what is missing in my marriage, same as watching Dexter and Monica grow closer by the second.
“I know you’re not weak.” Sean bats Alec’s hands away from the back of the armchair. With zero effort, Sean picks the chair up. “Maybe I don’t want to watch you struggle at something I can do without getting out of breath. Maybe I want to show you how much I appreciate you. Maybe you ought to let me keep my balls.”
Monica and I share a dreamy look, knowing Alec protests too much.
“Maybe I wanna keep my own balls. Ya ever think about that? It makes me feel like you think I’m useless.” Alec mutters unsavory things underneath his breath, as he dutifully follows his husband across the office. Sean makes sure the chair is placed just right, then shoves Alec’s ass on the seat. “You think I’m a child,” sounds like nothing more than the pout of a child.
“Asking for help is not a sign of weakness,” is Sean’s parting comment, after flashing each of us a loaded look, since that is definitely a fault we all share.
Little dog syndrome– the whole lot of us has it.
Our assistants deserve Vent Fridays. Kayla only humors me. Sean gives Alec’s shit right back to him with some of his own added in. Alisha takes the order from Monica, shrugs, then does her own thing, never planning on doing it in the first place. They have our numbers.
“Ladies.” Alec produces a piece of paper with a flourish, lines of precise handwriting covering the page. “Where should we begin? Did you hear about the latest scandal to rock Washington?”
We spend the next hour or so tearing our government to bits from all sides. Monica doesn’t share Alec’s and my political belief system. Instead of fighting it out, or even agreeing to disagree, we usually hear each other out. We may not agree when it’s all said and done, but we feel more open-minded by not being narcissistic enough to assume we’re right and the other side is automatically wrong.
Perception is reality.
Alec is hardcore politically minded. I tend to get riled up, because it’s better than admitting my life is in the crapper. Monica knows how to shut that shit down. Once or twice, Sean pops in to add his two cents, surprisingly agreeing with Monica more often than not.
Raw, open and exposed, left emotionally distraught, we move on, because arguing about politics solves nothing. The only thing we agree on is how no matter the party, politicians are evil incarnate. Negative or positive, the politicians win and the people lose. Why are we fighting over them, filled with smug condescension? As if our team is winning or losing, making us better than the other side. We’re stronger as a whole, so all we’re accomplishing is to weaken ourselves.
We treat this as if a person on a reality program is going off the rails, getting off on the juicy scandalous nature, when it’s obvious the producers are influencing the actions of the contestants. Sleight of hand, like attempting to enjoy The Bachelor after being jaded by the reality of UnREAL. You can’t unsee that shit– The Bachelor is unwatchable now for me, same goes with championing worthless scum.
This is real life, not a game or a reality show.
“I can’t anymore.” Monica raises her palms out in a stop motion. “Let’s not get my blood pressure rising– it’s not good for the burrito baby. Clearly, we don’t agree. Let’s move on.” Slumping into her chair, more due to exhaustion than defeat, “The reading community lost their shit over the weekend. Did you catch that on Facebook?”
“I feel like a proud papa watching their sons and daughters throw a tantrum over shit that is none of their goddamn business.” Alec is an asshole, but at least he’s entertaining. Eyes glowing bright in fiendish delight, he rubs his palms together in anticipation.
“Let me guess… pseudonyms being called out as tricking readers?” That’s an oldie but goodie that crops up every few months when an author is exposed. “Residing in Misery Castle means I get pulled into the circus, having to deal with monkeys that aren’t my own, which means no time for ghosting on Facebook book groups.”
“Pity.” Alec cocks his head to the side, no trace of pity lacing his voice. Loveable asshole. “Oh, you’re gonna love this, Kat.” An anticipatory grin pulls at his thin lips, changing the overall look of his face.
Monica takes all of Alec’s fun away. “Jackasses are at it again. There’s a goddamn petition going around, where they will boycott the publishing industry if we don’t publish books with the author’s legal names on them. Some are going as far as to want to know the gender, age, and location of the author. Ya know, since only a man should write a man. An older woman should never write a younger woman, as if we weren’t that age at one time in our lives. Someone outside of the south should never attempt to write a novel about small-time life, as if everywhere else is a bustling city.”
“ASL?” Snorting, I just toss my hands up in the air. “Fucking idiots. What is this? Pre-Myspace days, where age, sex, and location were precursors to every interaction?”
“Your age is showing.” Chuckling darkly, Monica is losing her shit, finding our plight, and what has been the downfall of the publishing industry, entertaining as fuck.
“Readers see their favorite authors as celebrities.” Monica is the rational one.
Alec isn’t. “They’re pissed after being burnt dozens of times, with those asshats who made up personas to get more sales. Sob stories, crowdsourcing, and whatnot.”
“Maybe get a clue?” Chin shaking left and right, Monica’s chestnut hair swishes around her cheekbones. “We’re selling a product. The book matters, not some bullshit personal story the author puts out there. If they’re selling themselves, maybe we need to ask ourselves why? If they’re a popular bestseller, why would they need to beg for money? Readers have zero right to an author’s private information, as has been a publishing standard since the dawn of literature, but authors are yanking readers into that sacred space to make a quick buck, because they suck at storytelling.”
“Social media!” Alisha shouts from the hallway, evidentially leaving the comfort of her sofa for Vent Tuesdays. Probably Sean moved the sofa outside my open door, with a bunch of them crowded on the cushions. “Stop living in the stone age, people! Play the game or it plays you!”
“Good thing we have you, cousin.” Monica rolls her eyes. “Now shut up and at least pretend you’re not eavesdropping.”
“I will say…” Eyes glued to the door, checking to see if I can catch a glimpse of who is ghosting out in the hallway. “Those who have posted apocalyptic bullshit, they have zero longevity. They pretty much disappear after they make their quick buck, then shit goes back to normal. Whatever happened over the weekend, it will be replaced with another injustice in a few days, and the cycle will continue thereafter, because no one can leave well-enough alone.”
“Same with politics!” Alec shouts, still pissed Monica took the pleasure of dishing the gossip away from him. A heavy groan flows in from the hallway, sounding suspiciously like Sean.
“Had to go there, didn’t ya, bud?” Monica raises an eyebrow, waiting for a reply. Alec keeps his trap shut– smart man. “I told Alisha to stay out of it. I know. I know. She doesn’t listen to me. So I said I’d fire her if she so much as pressed a reaction on a single post featuring this insanity.”
“I’m behaving,” comes softly from the hallway. “Promise.”
“We all know you have half a dozen alias accounts, girlfriend… Behaving? Pfft!” flutters Monica’s lips in a sharp hiss. “Joseph Carmen got into a bit of a bind over the weekend. An author behaving badly fiasco.” Monica drops the bombshell, causing me to wince.
“That’s his final strike,” I spit in disgust, the author’s attitude always rubbing me the wrong way. “His contract was up for renegotiation after this last book. We won’t be signing him again.”
“Good,” Monica agrees, hair bobbing from a sharp nod. “I sicced PR on the mess.”
“Let’s move along onto the books we read over the weekend.” All this doom and gloom drags me down, when I’m already at my lowest. With a stabbing fingertip, I tap the cover page on all three printed manuscripts on my desk blotter.
“I think I’m going to have to pass books featuring the romance tropes onto you guys from now on. I was tempted to slit my own wrists after reading these bags of shit.”
“Are you having a problem with the gays again?” Alec taunts me, knowing it digs the knife in deeper. There’s a fine line between loveable asshole and cruel calculator, and Alec usually crosses that line on a daily basis. “Or is it romance in general this time? It’s supposed to be fantasy, girl. Obviously, we know no one acts or reacts like that in reality.”
“Hey, you’re one to talk.” Monica is quick to come to my defense. “You’re the one who goes on and on every week about how unrealistically gay men are portrayed in novels. With all that sappy purple prose and impossible sexual positions.”
“An asshole is not a vagina!” Alec bites off in a seething tone, getting worked up, voice getting louder and louder with each word spoken. “There’s no such thing as a goddamn boy pussy! My nipples are not called fucking tits! I don’t have tits! I don’t have a pussy! I’m gay, not a goddamn woman! I’m allowed to find that offensive.”
Working this closely with gay men, being married to gay men, I have learned that their misogyny rivals that of white, conservative males. Everything derogatory being pitched at gay men is based on degrading women. Instead of understanding how women were born oppressed by this bullshit, they lower us even more to prove they are better than us.
Ranting, Alec is offended because vaginas, tits, and pussies are insulting, because to have vaginas, tits, or pussies makes you a lower life form.
Frankly, I just hate men in general, no matter their orientation.
“Kat casually mentions she’s in the wrong headspace for romance, and you give her shit. Being dismissive and assholey, when we agreed with you about the boy pussy!” Monica lobs back. “So quit acting like we’re the numbskulls who wrote that insanity. Last year, we rejected the majority of the manuscripts you bitched about. Meanwhile, you championed all the ones Kat and I wanted to boot. It’s a good thing Kat has veto power, because most of those you wanted us to keep were received poorly in the literary world.”
Fingertips squeezing the bridge of my nose, eyes clenched shut tight, with a deep breath, I let it all go. “I shouldn’t be made to feel badly about myself when I read a novel. Gender, orientation, religion, or even political leanings, all it does is make half of the readership feel like shit.”
“Remember how you always say it’s the character, not the author?” Alec prompts, bringing up a major discussion we’ve had over the years. “You preach how a well-rounded character has flaws. A perfect character comes off as one-dimensional and preachy. If a guy is sexist because he has mommy issues, it doesn’t mean the author is sexist.”
“This is different.” Sighing, eyes still clenched tightly, I try to put the chaotic emotions into words. “I read as an escape. My job is to make that escape amazing for readers. Lately, most books are trying their damnedest to harm women. I cannot read MM Romance any longer.”
Leaning forward, a crimson nail taps on a title that is obviously LGBTQ in nature. “What’s in this book?” Monica gets a clue. “Why is it a trigger?”
“I cannot continue to publish books that denigrate women,” is said in a firm, authoritative voice. “No differently than when we flagged manuscripts that come off as racist or bigoted. Widespread misogyny shouldn’t be ignored because it only affects women. The majority of the time, these books vilify women, using them as nothing but a beard or an incubator, or they make them the zany, insufferable bestie. Out of a hundred MM Romance novels with villains, at least ninety-five of those villains are women.”
“Let us gays have something to call our own.” Alec doesn’t get it, blind to the blatant misogyny on every single page. The hate. As if lowering women somehow rises men, gay men in particular. “It’s a book about two boys who kiss boys– leave ‘em alone. Leave the pussy agenda out of it.”
“Pussy agenda?” Monica gasps, with a few more echoing her from the hallway, the loudest belonging to Sean.
“This book!” Enraged, I pound the side of my fist on the manuscript that needs to be set on fire on the author’s doorstep, like the bag of dog shit it is. Coming to my feet, I lose all restraint.
“This book brings the pussy into it, not the other way around. The romance is between an out-and-proud fitness trainer and an in-the-closet married man with three kids. They spend pages upon pages making fun of the housewife, blaming her for every issue they have as a couple. She is vilified, her sexuality torn to shreds. At its core, that is not dirty hot or romantic– it’s disgusting. These so-called heroes the readers are championing, they’re actually pieces of shit cheaters who get off on blaming women for their issues. The ending is where the woman is left alone, called fat and unwanted– insinuating that if she were hot and skinny, the gay husband wouldn’t have strayed, as if being gay is a choice –going as far as to joke about how she deserves to die alone, because how dare she be upset with her husband, calling her a bigot who doesn’t understand, where they get to act like weekend dads to complete their family.”
Monica and Alec gape up at me as I pour all my rage into a book that hit far too close to home.
“Edge. Will. NOT. Publish books like this anymore.” Breathing deeply, I can barely grit the words out. “The majority of our readers are middle-age women. It’s not just MM either. Contemporary romance is littered with older men and twenty-year-old naïve girls who are younger than their adult children, always making the women the age of the hero out to be desperate and slutty or dried-up and overbearing. The median age of heroines is in their early twenties, as if our lives are over once we hit thirty. Our only worth is whether or not someone wants us, while celebrating silver foxes. As a subliminal message, our readers are not the demographic shown in the novels as the romantic lead, as if we don’t deserve love but our cheating ex-husbands do. Our readers are those discarded in the novels. These are books written by women for women, filled with internalized misogyny. I cannot even count how many times I’ve read in a book where men give the best head because women hate the chore–”
“In lesbian fiction,” Monica cuts me off. “The men are always saying the women just haven’t been fucked by a real man. In MF novels, the men are always said to be the best at eating pussy. Exactly when does a woman get to be good at something?”
“Well, in an MM book, it makes sense for the man to be giving the head.” Alec tries to be the voice of reason, not getting it. Mansplaining. “I’ve never been blown by a woman, but I can attest that men give amazing head.”
“Yeah? So why do I read that in every genre?” Monica volleys back at Alec. “Kat’s right– MM readers say how badly they want to escape into books about two boys kissing each other, because that means we don’t have to feel insecure. Books with women are filled with judgment, shaming, and pressure, and we want to escape into a world where women aren’t in the equation. Yet the author and publisher are drawing us back into it, when we are the largest demographic reading it.”
“Just let us vent in our books, ladies.” Alec is known for lashing out when he is proven wrong, because he can’t let shit go, so what he says next doesn’t take me by surprise. “We don’t want your pussy, doesn’t mean no one does.”
“You want a book to call your own?!” is shouted at Alec. Licks of fiery red covering my vision, I am about to fall over the edge of the abyss. “We women can’t even claim ownership of FF novels, without internalized misogyny seeping in. In this book.” Finger going numb, I stab the goddamn thing. “The wife is blamed for being fat and ugly, so she deserves to be cheated on, to be gaslit, to be abused and neglected, as if she was the one who lied about wanting her husband and loving him. As if she was the one who asked him to marry her, knowing it was all fake. A lie. All wrapped up in a pretty bow of gay romance. If he’s gay, why is he blaming his wife for him not wanting her because she’s fat, ugly, used up, and old? Do. You. Get. It. Now?!”
“I. LIVE. THIS!!!!!” Bellows out of my throat, unable to contain the rage anymore. Face stinging red, veins throbbing in my forehead, every muscle coils in my body. Shame hits me full force. Instantly I feel horrific for using Alec and Monica as a convenient target.
Slumping back into my seat, tears of rage, shame, and hopelessness spill from my eyes. “I’m sorry. So goddamn sorry. I live this– I don’t want to read it, having it thrown back into my face. I’m not the only wife on the planet who has lived this. This isn’t fantasy for us. This isn’t our fault. I’m in a Facebook group with over half a million women who were unwittingly used as beards, all our stories so similar. We shouldn’t be shamed on the pages of a novel by a writer using us as a source of entertainment.”
“Kat, I–” Looking horrified, expression stark, Alec is at a loss for words. “The wife holds no blame. Any man who uses a woman to hide in the closet is a piece of shit. He’s a user and an abuser. Not saying he doesn’t deserve to find love, but he shouldn’t at the expense of his wife’s self-worth. He’s incapable of wanting her, because he’s gay, not because she’s undesirable.”
Uncontrollable shaking starts at my toes and moves in jarring waves up my body, until my teeth are chattering. Breath coming in harsh pants, the sensation of drawing in air from a straw has panic roiling in my veins.
“You say you want books where you can vent about women?” Staring down at the manuscript, tears splatter to dampen my blouse. “These same books are read primarily by women. Should the cheating husband get to exploit our stories after using us as a beard, giving the same-sex couple a happily ever after, featuring our stolen children? Do they deserve a place to vent, a place to not be held accountable for their heinous behavior? Or should the story be told from the used and abused?”
Monica is silent, watching on with glistening eyes. While Alec gets a clue and realizes it was a hypothetical question.
“As editors, that’s the question. Who owns the right to tell this story, and who is the true villain of the tale? As a publisher, and one of half a million beards, each bringing unique talents, we’ve found less than a dozen books from our point-of-view, yet thousands upon thousands where the husband is made to look like he’s in the right, as if the wife isn’t his victim. So take your books and keep them, because I won’t read them, nor will Edge publish anything so deeply ingrained with misogyny. If you want to claim a book featuring two boys kissing each other, either leave the abused wife out of it, because that’s her goddamn story to tell, or handle it with compassion, with the character asking for forgiveness and seeking self-awareness after destroying another for his own self-serving needs.”
Monica fetches the manuscript off my blotter, holding it far away from her body with only a few fingertips, as if it’s contagious. “Where’s your lighter, my fellow pothead?” is said with nothing but amused affection. “I know you have one on your person. Let’s burn this cocksucker in your bathroom sink.”
“To be the devil’s advocate…” Alec trails off, not appreciating the cocksucker usage. “We’re all cocksuckers here, just saying. But if you burn the book, the sprinklers will be activated.”
“Shredder then.” Monica hops up, striding around my desk. “C’mon, bitch. Tear the title page off this pile of shit, and let’s get to shredding.”
Somewhere in the middle of me rage-shredding a manuscript by an author whose unsigned contract is resting on my desk, Sean tugged Alec from the room, firmly shutting my office door for the first time in years.
I could give a fuck less as Monica and I act like less than editors. We bond, not as besties, not as sisters, but as women.
As the red wash fades, I find myself sobbing against Monica’s newly acquired assets, face pressed against her blouse, leaving tear stains on the fickle fabric. “Usual time, usual place, one last test.”
“No,” is muttered in abject horror, body shuddering in my best friend’s arms. “I cannot live through doing it again.”
“Not a final test for them, Kat– a final test for you. If they fail, which we both know they will, it will be the closure you need.” Fingers dig into my shoulders, pulling me upright with a harsh yank. “Leave them!”
“I don’t have an alternative– I won’t fade away like the woman in that book, because you know Cort is not letting me take our children with me. Everywhere I go, I’ll be seen as a horrible person, with an empty soul because I abandoned my children.”
“As if they don’t make you feel that way right now?” Blunt, the bitter truth falls from Monica’s lips, because she doesn’t believe in pretty lies. “You aren’t that woman in the book. You need to empower those ladies you met online while you’re at it.”
“How?” comes as a pitiful whine of a child who still needs the support of her parents and isn’t getting it, to the point I fucking hate myself. “They’ll call me a bitch and a gold-digging cunt. They’ll blame me, as always. Women never win, when will we learn that sick truth?”
“Live the best version of yourself.” Monica holds me at arm’s length, eyes connecting us in a way I never allow myself with many. Vulnerability takes trust, and I give Monica my trust. “Don’t give two fucks about what anyone thinks about you. The best revenge is to be happy. Be happy, that’s how you win. Be happy, Katya Waters– no one deserves it more than you do.”
“Hey, bub.” Levi hooks an elbow around my neck, herding me in the direction of the bar area. The lights and sounds of Restraint are beating at my brain, skin beading with a cold sweat, pulse skyrocketing. “Stop looking so fierce– you’ll be the one to end up starting a riot.”
Raw and on edge, I can’t allow the overstimulation to get the better of me, as it batters all my senses, leaving them in tatters. It was a battle in a never-ending war that actually got me out of Green tonight, and I can’t risk being placed back into captivity.
Stanton is in overprotective brother mode, the intensity worse for the fact that he is the head of our family. What he says is law on three fronts– as the Green patriarch, the head of our organized crime syndicate, and the elder of our founding family.
Since I set foot on Dominion soil, I haven’t had a second of privacy, barely taking a shit unaided– I can sense someone is always lurking outside the bathroom door. Levi has taken it upon himself to sit on the closed toilet seat and chatter at me while I shower, which means I wear my boxers into the shower, then toss them at him, because no one is going to see that mangled region of my body.
Stanton and Syn are terrified, rightfully so, after they guessed I’m suffering from PTSD. They fear suicide, because after living life in survival mode, with laws differing than those of man, it’s difficult to assimilate back into civilized society. Not to mention the fact that I lost the bulk of the men who had been by my side during the entirety of my enlistment.
Suffering in a state of endless mourning, the guilt eating up my insides as I second-guess my decisions during that last raid– the order that annihilated my men and my ability to function as a man. The confidence in my competency to lead has been reduced to ash.
Fearing a setback, Stanton wouldn’t allow me to take my rightful place at his side, lording over Dominion and our territories. Instead, he chose his ballerina mafia princess, who had cut her teeth in Las Vegas, which was decidedly a more bloodthirsty territory.
After jumping every time someone opens or closes a door in Stan’s apartment, where I’d find the nearest cover, after cataloging what could be used as a weapon against overly touchy feely, well-intentioned relatives, tonight is about busywork and getting me out of the house.
I was ordered to accompany Levi and Gwen to Restraint. A ruse of sorts, where I was to protect my companions, which is laughable, considering I’ve never bested Levi, and he’s never bested me, and who the fuck would ever harm harmless Gwen. In my weakened state, I could easily be brought down by a teenage girl.
The irony of going to a club– a sex club no less –when my brother had effectively lobbed off my remaining nut by coddling me and treating me like a fragile pussy.
They had an intervention of sorts, because I refuse to talk about my tenure with the United State Marine Corps, because everything I could say it classified. It’s best to not even think it, lest it spill from my loosen lips. It’s nothing but a hornet’s nest of pain, each sting painful enough to incapacitate me.
Busywork, babysitting, trying to give me a purpose since everything I’ve strived to achieve has been torn from my grasp, and they don’t know the half of it, because I refuse to speak a word. Not only am I bunking with my bloodthirsty niece, now I’m watching over Ezra’s brainchild.
The founders are unsure if Ezra is going off the rails again and self-sabotaging while taking us down with him, or if something far more nefarious is going on. I’ve been tasked to find out, but they all know it’s a bullshit job to give me something to do, instead of counting the remaining seconds of my life. No military. No cartel. No sex. No kids.
If there is truth to the threat, I’ve been approved to head a security unit. While the founders may feel like they’re throwing me a bone, security is what I excel at, especially combining individuals into a cohesively functioning team. They at least managed to make me look forward to something in this dreadful existence I call a life.
“It would be another setback in a journey of many.” Somehow, even above the music assaulting my eardrums, Gwen’s soft voice carries from the other side of Levi. I’ve known this woman since birth, at one time she was supposed to be my mother figure– she just about bowled me over by wearing a pair of jeans and a tank top. Blonde and petite, Gwen is surprisingly blending in with her surroundings, appearing to be an indiscriminate age with her hair in a ponytail. “Do try to change the ferocious expression on your face, Caleb.”
No matter the looks, a woman who is shorter, smaller, and appears to be younger than me, manages to cut me off at the knees by treating me as her child.
Laughing lightly, whether it’s for show is anyone’s guess, Levi turns on the frat boy charm. A happy-go-lucky smile is tinged slightly with smug confidence. A pair of worn-out jeans and a tight t-shirt lowers his age into the range of twentysomething. That shaved head is hiding the fact that he has honey brown curls that takes away from his serial killer image. But the severity of his skullcut is lessened by the deep tan from two weeks of running the pavement on Dominion’s streets at my side. Nonstop doubletakes, those brown contacts covering laser beam eyes are driving me to distraction. If I hadn’t known Levi since birth, I wouldn’t know what to make of him.
Leviticus Wilson is a consummate actor, and I know him better than anyone else on this planet. But as he perfectly mimics a college kid, I barely recognize his facial expressions, the loose way he carries his taut body, and even his voice has lost that raspy threatening edge that I find more comforting than terrifying.
Our motley crew threesome is something to behold. After Aaron almost pissed himself at the main entrance, sputtering and waving us through, followed by Roarke’s eyes bulging out of his sockets, we’re slowly weaving our way through a club that is breaking a half dozen fire codes– firefighter Levi just finished listing those off, most falling on deaf ears as the music assaulted us.
Arm wrapped lightly around Gwen’s waist, looking like lovers seeking a bit of a thrill to liven up a dull relationship– in actuality, Levi is protecting his mother-in-law. Bro-ing it up, Levi’s got his other arm wrapped around my shoulders, elbow hooking my neck– in actuality, he’s keeping my shit together.
“Instead of resting bitch face, you’ve got resting warrior face, my brother.”
Eyes cutting to the side, I show Levi just how much I appreciate his nonstop hilarity, just as a douchebag with a death-wish steps in front of me, forcing me into a standstill. Smarmy, sweat licking at his brow, face bloated from alcohol, he reminds me of the men who pay for sex– the ones who knock the whores around and demand a refund, even though the ladies gave the man everything he paid for and then some. This lowlife is the type of guy who will drug a drink and take advantage, then say the woman wanted it.
I know the type– I was reared by this type. Satan and his lieutenants.
Only this guy doesn’t have the smarts Satan had in the tip of his dick.
That arm hooking my throat tightens, stopping me from lashing out to snap that motherfucker’s neck. “Toto, you’re back in Kansas,” is a low warning rumble from Levi’s chest, meant only for my ears. “I’m good at cleaning up messes, but I ain’t that good.”
Recognizing his death flashing before my eyes. “My bad.” The dude holds his hands up in the universal sign of ‘I’m harmless’ then slowly backs away. A few seconds ago, he was filled with alcohol-induced courage and fueled by mob mentality, about to shout at me to watch where I was fucking going, probably razz me a bit to increase his dick size, judging by the posse of nutless wonders at his back.
Just because I’m below average height, taut body hidden beneath loose clothing, doesn’t mean I’m not the biggest predator in this club, one that is running off pure adrenaline, instinct, and survival of the fittest.
Those assholes aren’t fit to survive. They’re not fit enough to reproduce, but a man like me had that torn away in an explosive burst during a roadside bombing.
“Nope.” Arm swinging me to the right, nearly cutting off my oxygen supply. “That’d be a big nope, killa. Might feel good for a split-second, but then you’d hate yourself. Then you’d use it as an excuse to atone for your sins. Not on my watch, bub.”
The only response Levi gets is a death glare.
I am not suicidal.
Doesn’t matter if I use big or small words, bellow it loudly or whisper it all quiet, no one believes me when I promise not to put a cap in my right temple.
“I’ve been going through eye-witness accounts on the past two riots.” Gwen is smart to reroute us back to the subject at hand. Those hypnotic blue eyes miss nothing, completely at odds with the innocent maiden expression on her face. “That man was probably paid to get someone riled up, and he chose you, Caleb. Rightly for the fact that you look like a ticking timebomb. Wrongly for the fact that you’re here to stop a riot. I assume,” she tacks on, not trusting me anymore.
A toxic stew of grief, shame, and decimated confidence slam into me all at once. “And I almost played into his hands.”
“You’ve got the look of a man with demons riding you, my brother.” That arm hold turns into more of an embrace. Everyone keeps acting as if I look differently to them than who I see gazing back at me from the bathroom mirror.
“We need alcohol.”
A brow lowers in confusion, while a pretty face upturns in my direction. Levi and Gwen stare at me like I’ve grown a third head.
“Not to drink.” Scoffing, I jerk out from beneath Levi’s hold. They all assume I’m dosed with the psychotropic drugs I’m supposed to be taking, so I’ve been living the life of a monk. “As a prop. I’m not a sociopath like you motherfuckers– I need a prop to excuse the fact that my face looks like I’m about to commit mass slaughter.”
“Fine.” Gwen eyes me, the trust everyone had in me before I left Dominion as a teen has turned tenuous at best since I returned a wounded hero. “I’d feel safer near Kristal anyway.”
“Uh!” Twisting his face up, Levi glares at his mother-in-law. “What am I, woman? Chopped liver? Been protecting your ass since I was sixteen.”
Those angelic eyes roll, and a montage of every human being Gwen’s brought into this world plays out inside my head, dominated by Syn mostly. All disrespectful eye-rollers, the whole lot of them, especially Torian.
Anger dissipating in an instant, Levi releases the filthiest laugh I’ve ever heard– not playing a role in an MdJ production, that is the laugh Levi employs when he’s around those he trusts. A laugh he inherited from his mother. The laugh that has quivers of pleasure roiling up and down my spine.
It’s the uninhibited, joyous laughter Levi always released after coming down my throat. I swear to God, seventeen years later, I can still taste it coating the back of my tongue.
If that imagined taste can’t get my dick hard, nothing ever will, not after being conditioned to rise for Levi since I learned what a hard-on meant.
Sharing a look with me, it’s not the same with those contacts covering his gaze, but an entire conversation takes place between us in less than a second. “You’ll be okay.” Levi assures himself, following after Gwen as she weaves through the crowd toward the bar Kristal is manning.
Doing the only thing I can– my duty –I follow.
Slipping into recon-mode, my eyes miss nothing. I shrink into myself, trying to cloak the fact that I’m the biggest predator here. All around me, the alcohol flows easier than water, the lust-inducing thump vibrates at our feet to reverberate up our legs and throughout our bodies. Dancers gyrate against one another in a mating dance that hammers home the depressive state of my mangled junk.
Ominous yet thrilling, a thick yet heady scent lingers in the air, raw sex with the possibility of violence. Sighing deeply, the pheromones swirling around me draw the tension from my taut muscles like the most potent of drugs, deeply lulling me to momentarily forget about the possibility of my own impotency.
Strategically placed, I realize this isn’t babysitting duty or busywork, not by how hypervigilant those spread across the club appear. The patrons none-the-wiser, except for a few who are sensitive to the suffocating energy coalescing.
Dexter is spotted first, hiding against the far wall, arms crossed over his glistening chest– brow heavy with determination and concentration.
A vibe, but it’s always been as if I have a homing beacon set on Syn– her post is by a key-coded door at the rear of the club. Eyes sharp with the promise of justice.
A few paces to the right, Roman Alexander is stationed at the mouth of a hallway, the flare of an Exit sign glowing from above, promising restrooms and emergency exits, and most likely offices and storerooms lining the hallway.
A dozen strides from me, Gwen is belly-up to the bar, chatting openly with a beaming Kristal Harris, with Regina Regal glaring her down for some unknown reason. Oh, right– Gwen has either fucked or birthed the majority of the men in Regina’s life.
The crowd parting like Moses and the sea, none other than a Whittenhower strolls through as if he owns the world. Tall and fit, with the world at his fingertips, that blond, blue-eyed young god of Dominion is none other than Daniel Whittenhower II, otherwise known as Pretty Boy or Whitt.
Captivity hasn’t been very productive on the networking front, not that I’m much of a joiner. If they didn’t show up to the only founders’ meeting I’ve attended, I haven’t laid eyes upon them yet.
This man is the taller, prettier version of his scarred sire– the broody writer I have seen several times in the past two weeks, since he’s always shoved up Levi’s ass. I was introduced to Grant’s youngest spawn the first night of my arrival. Niel is nothing like I expected, looking more like the Atwaters than the Whittenhowers, mind more twisted by Machiavellian plots than Machiavelli himself, which leaves the only possibility for this obvious Whittenhower man to be our resident Pretty Boy.
Stunned, frozen solid in the middle of the floor, with a swarm of packed bodies surrounding me, I watch as Whitt walks in a bubble of his own confidence, wearing tailored trousers and a heartwarming, sunshiny smile.
After eating and breathing blood, sweat, tears, death, and destruction for the better part of two decades, beauty still hurts to gaze upon. The first time Levi hugged me, I bawled like a pussy for nearly an hour while my entire family waited on the other side of a closed door.
It was too much, too soon. Too kind. Too compassionate. Too loving. That hug broke the bitter dam I’ve erected since I was a teenager, and I can’t seem to repair the protective barrier surrounding my soul.
Green is filled with the brutality and loyalty of family, MdJ meetings are much the same. Seeing innocent aristocracy, glowing with angelic beauty in a city as tainted as Dominion, deep in the seedy underbelly, waltzing through a club catering to deviancy, my brain can’t compute.
Gaze tracking the boy through the club, following his arm… Whitt’s palm is softly resting above the swell of a woman’s ass. Owning the world, he probably owns this woman too. No matter how innocent appearances may be, Whitt’s neck is taut, eyes searching the shadows as he escorts the woman to the door Syn is manning, like the woman is precious cargo he’s been entrusted to protect.
Recognizing the way Syn’s cheeks clench, it’s guilt not disgust that is revealed as she takes in the woman approaching her. Then her eyes soften, not because Whitt is her brother, but who could ever stay angry when looking at his beauty.
Curiosity has me slipping through the crowd, eyes glued to that door, the black pleather catsuit my beacon. Skin-tight, every movement is revealed as she takes smaller steps, the shiny material drawn across the swell of her ass and the curve of her hips and her rounded thighs.
In a club packed with women hopped up on alcohol, lust, and violence, why did this woman draw my attention?
She’s wearing a pleather catsuit– I’m not into this silly BDSM shit. I live in reality, with no room for fantasy. I don’t need to whip a person to get off, not when I’ve been held against my will and tortured. I don’t need genital mutilation when I’ve protected villages from the awful fate, then suffered it myself. I don’t need to playact acts of sexual violence and dubious consent, when I spent my childhood being taken against my will.
Not the catsuit, it’s the bloodred hair cascading to tickle at Whitt’s hand that is beaconing me forward until there’s only a dozen feet separating us. Longing slams into me, the fierce hunger to slide my fingertips through the strands– pet her like a cat.
I seriously need to get out more, it’s no wonder my brother is terrified and sent me with babysitters. I can’t be trusted to behave like a rational human being in public. Place a rifle in my hands and Marines at my back, and I thrive. Shove my ass in with normal, everyday humans, and I’m out of my element.
Pet her like a cat? For fuck’s sake!
Possessively glaring at Whitt’s elegant hand resting far too close to her voluptuous ass, the air is knocked out of my lungs– it’s just a split-second, not long enough to discern eye color –the woman looks over her shoulder, probably sensing someone was staring a hole through her ass, but it was long enough for our souls to connect.
A smoky fog descends, washing away what is happening in reality and replacing it with a fantasy.
That glorious mane of hair flows with lifelike movement as her head hitches back, creamy neck exposed for the tiniest of kisses from my lips. Throaty laughter vibrates against my mouth, as we become a tangle of arms and legs on a sofa, playing and wrestling over the remote.
“Daddy?” Gigantic blue eyes, sandy curls, a button nose, and a pointy chin, a little boy from my past gazes up at me. He’s me. I’m him. This is what I looked like in the mirror before Satan and his lieutenants started creeping into my bedroom in the dark of night.
“Daddy?” The sweetest, childlike, most beautiful voice to caress my ears is speaking to me. It’s not me from my memories– this is my future, and he’s calling me daddy. “Stop being mean to Mommy.”
The little boy crawls into our laps, chubby hand knocking my lips away from his mommy’s throat. He called her– the woman with the fiery hair wearing that indecent catsuit –mommy.
“Hey, bub!” An arm wrapping around my neck is just muted background noise as clarity descends. The woman is getting away from me, escorted by Pretty Boy, with Syn acting as the Ferryman to Hades.
Struggling to get out from beneath that ironlike arm, “I–”
“What are you doing?” Voice filled with nothing but confusion, Levi fears I’m losing it. The door is closed, effectively locking me out. Head tilted, sighting me down like a hawk after prey, Syn is staring at me with one eye while communicating with her husband with the other, silently conveying, “Wil, keep our boy’s shit together, will ya?”
“What is your malfunction?” Playfully dragging me to and fro, Levi effectively snares me in a headlock. “Why are you creeping on Ezra’s wife?”
The pallor of death sucking all the blood from my system, the fantasy I erected bursts apart and reality descends.
It only took fifteen seconds to change my world view.
Fifteen seconds to give me hope.
Fifteen seconds to erase the fact that I’m missing a nut, my junk is marred and functionless, and I probably can’t get it up, and if I could, I probably can’t get off, and if I can, I probably can’t make that son that starred in my fantasy.
Fifteen seconds where I felt nothing but hope, and love, and warmth, and contentment, and trust, and purpose, and happiness.
All it took was two words to decimate me. Break me. Annihilate me in a way a roadside bombing couldn’t. Fifteen seconds ago, I didn’t know what it felt like to be happy, where I could easily function in this apathetic state, only to have that happiness torn away from me.
“Good God, never let Ezra see you look at Kat like that.” Levi’s laughter isn’t taunting, but that’s how it hits my ears, filters through my body, to combust my heart. “He’d gut you in your sleep, then masturbate with your entrails.”
Vibrating as every emotion a person is capable of feeling hits me with force. Fifteen seconds ago, I could function in this numbness, but I’m no longer numb, and now I fear everyone was right… I fear looking in the mirror to see the ghost of who I once was staring back at me.
I may have survived my wounds, but it left me dead inside and out.
Touch light and soothing, a small hand pets the nape of my neck, pouty lips nearing my ear but never making contact. “The drive to rescue the damsel in distress is strong in you,” Gwen whispers to me, making sure even Levi can’t overhear.
There’s a cadence in Gwen’s voice, a quality she possesses that reminds me of my grandmother. I haven’t seen my grandmother since I left for basic training, because she has a witchy way about her when she asks if I’ve got a woman yet. When I tell her no, Grandma always replies that I’ll know when I’ve found her, just like how Mom knew in an instant when she met my stepdad.
Shit! Levi called her Kat… and I was fucking fantasizing about petting her hair like a cat.
With only a few feet separating us, there are tears glistening in Gwen’s eyes, almost as if she understands that I’ve finally admitted to myself just how close I am to ending it all, no matter the promises I’ve made to my brother.
“Maybe it’s you who needs to be rescued,” Gwen flutters against the shell of my ear, hand cupping my shoulder for stability. “Marriages don’t last forever. Maybe you’re the hero of Katya’s story, but maybe she’s the unlikely heroine of yours.”
Hell breaks free from the earth’s crust, the sights and sounds of combat surround me. Stampeding humans not realizing they’re making it worse for all of us, punches are thrown as Levi and I fight to keep Gwen safe.
Getting my own dick out of my ass, I want to tear my remaining nut from my body for being so distracted by my own bullshit that I didn’t realize a violent riot was erupting around us.
In the ruckus, Syn and Dexter charge across the club toward the bar. “Fate! Fate!” is shrill with panic from the bravest, most ferocious woman I’ve ever met. “Kristal! Help Fate!” Struggling against the current, I try to get to Syn to help, because it’s bad judging by how terrified her voice sounds.
“Regina!” Dexter’s booming voice joins the fray, the edge of hysteria lighting fear in my veins more than active combat ever did. “Regina!” Even from this distance, I can tell the crazed woman is beating a man to death, the guy who got in my way and tried to start shit with me. Fist landing after fist landing, Regina renders him into a bloody pulp at her feet. Hand jerking at her shoulder, Dexter tries to tear Regina off her prey, only to be backhanded by her. “Regina, you’re killing him!”
The steel door slams open, clipping a group of men struggling against one another, rebounding to hit them several times over, and I expect demons to pour out next. Whitt flies out the door, voice pitched with terror. “Dalton! Somebody fucking help Dalton!”
“Pretty Boy!” Dexter manages to scream over the riot surrounding us. “Either get your fucking wife out of here or get your sisters!”
“Dalton!” Whitt bellows to anyone who will listen. Catching sight of me, never having seen me before, he looks me dead in the eyes. It could be the fact that he must recognize his mother clasped to my chest in a protective embrace, or it could be the instinctive radar all founders possess to recognize their own kind. “Same code as the gates. Go!”
Loyalty never an issue for Levi, blood is thicker than water, and the stronger the blood tie, the stronger the loyalty. Levi flees the riot, leaving everyone to their fates, his driving force saving his brother.
With renewed purpose, I take lead.
I haven't written a blog post in well over a year, and I felt the need to just ramble a bit.
Last year was crazy for me, nonstop working. While this year feels like I'm treading water with nothing being accomplished. A few hazards popped up unexpectedly- I don't feel like getting into any of that -which twisted my emotions, tossing productivity and focus out the window.
The words are stuck in my head. The stories and plot threads rich and multifaceted. It's not a matter of sitting at the keyboard and pouring the words on the page. Those words exist, they just refuse to reach my fingertips.
My confidence has taken hit after hit. It's hard to be real with yourself, to the point you remove an entire series from sale to be rewritten, without admitting defeat. The triumph was rewriting those books the way they should have been written the first time around, but that in and of itself means I made a mistake to begin with. I admit it. I accept it. I changed it. But that doesn't mean it doesn't have an impact on my confidence.
Hero is the redheaded stepchild who is getting the brunt of my lack of confidence. Up and down. Left and right. Sideways and straight. I'm all over the place. The plot doesn't change, only gets better as I step away. There is so much pressure, after rewriting Restraint - Integrated, simply to create a strong foundation for Hero, only to fear I'll muck it all up like I did its predecessors.
I will never rewrite another novel again. Not a single one. What I publish from here on out, it will be its final form forever. That puts pressure on me to write the book the way it deserves. I don't mean editing and formatting, as those things can be fixed. The plot, the flow of words, the motivations of the characters. I can't put myself through republishing rewritten work again.
This sets me up for failure. Performance anxiety. There are many drafts, that's not what I'm trying to convey. It's the confidence that what I publish is the best it can be.
I want to share something with y'all, using it as an example.
Hero (which is now Heroism, but I will still call it Hero) is refusing to be written. The muse puts up a roadblock, because the closer I get to the finish line, the more confident I'll have to be in order to hit publish. That's not the example. I'll shed light on the progress of that later.
The muse is a master of creation, but she gets bored easily. A bored, unfocused muse is catastrophic. I have to feed her, and feed her often.
I write tomes. 500 - 700 pages on average per book. But some of those books are closer to 1000 pages, a few much longer. That is a lot of pressure. To help curtail this pressure, I fed the muse Wexler.
A short novella, featuring Auggie Kline's dad, set in the Blended universe. In case you're curious, Adam Wexler from Wicked is a dual-narrator with Patrick Kline. Good Girl - Widow was the winter and spring. Warped - Wager was the summer. Wicked was in the past. Wonder was far in the future. Wexler is the fall in the current time frame, with Wayward running alongside all the others.
I got about halfway through a short novella, and the pressure came back, because this novella seeded the much-larger, much-anticipated Wayward. The content is deep and dark, but fast paced, with a message of hope. It matters what I write in so few pages. The muse went limp as soon as she realized this.
It's like I had ED for writers. Not writer's block. Performance Anxiety.
Wexler is currently half completed, shelved in a folder, awaiting the muse's attention, along with many, many other projects with a similar fate.
Here is the example, only I'm working through it, learning about myself as a writer.
Last Wednesday, I woke to a daydream/dream of sorts, with a story rapidly solidifying in my mind. So I sat with my laptop and wrote out a few chapters. That night, as I struggled to sleep, I decided to make changes. That's how the writing process works, as frustrating as it may be.
In a long-standing series, there isn't much wiggle room. You know the characters and their universe, almost as well as your own life. It's like a long hallway, with a few doors here or there, able to branch off to rooms you already recognize, but you'll still be in the same house. You can't go anywhere, except to wander around the various rooms, maybe discovering things you hadn't realized were hidden there. If you go out the front door, the series is finished. If you go out the back door, the series will head in a new direction.
A blank slate. A new project, something from scratch that you're breathing life into from nothing, it's a puzzle without a picture. The pieces continually need to be rearranged as the picture solidifies. Sometimes the puzzle forms a picture, but that last piece refuses to fit. So you tear it apart, dump the pieces back in the box, shake it up, and try to put it together again, hoping against hope that it will eventually fit.
30,000 words into Followill. The story changed. I have a beta-reader who points out when I tell vs show. Storytelling is a narrative where the characters aren't in the moment. Showing is based on placing the character in the thick of it. One is where the reader gets suffocated under a pile of info-dump, the other flows organically in an easily digestible treat.
I kept hearing Diane scolding me as I reread passages. There's a lot of story to tell that isn't happening on the pages, and even I as a reader hates that. I went back to the beginning, reworking the entire draft, trying to eliminate it by showing it in the now. Then I hit the same roadblock. Found myself back into telling.
Another sleepless night. Another epiphany. Another reworking from the beginning (at this rate, I'm just happy it's only 75 manuscript pages to keep reworking) I hit another roadblock. Didn't write yesterday at all. My house on Sims Mobile is looking pretty swank though.
Another sleepless night, too many in a row.
Something shifted last night. Delusion? Sleep deprivation? I don't know. But the newest epiphany removed most of the telling. Instead of reworking those same 75 pages, because I'm sick of those pages, I'm writing this blog post.
This is where a lack of confidence kills a book. If I closed out the document, put it in a folder, and let it go with the rest its ilk, it would never see the light of day. Unlike Wexler above, Followill and the others are not in a series, where it is dependent on them being completed to move forward. Wexler will see the light of day, when my writer's ED vanishes, because the novella is not independent of Wayward. If Wayward is to exist, Wexler must be completed.
Under pressure. Pressure pushing down on me... Under pressure. Under pressure. Pressure. (did you just sing that? Because I know I did)
Instead, I look at Followill as a learning experience, just as I did when I started writing Hero and discovered that 11 books, some well over 1000 pages long, had to be rewritten, or the series was dead. Dead and in a folder, never to see the light of day.
I promised I wouldn't write anything else until Hero was finished. Not just a promise I made to my readers, but most importantly, a vow I made to myself. But the muse dies when she is not creating. She goes quiet, resentful. She is an entity of creativity, and with her death, there goes my imagination. It's the confidence in feeding her that is my malfunction.
Lessons learned, a journey of honing my craft awaits, the muse will be fed by breaking my vow, if only for a short while.
As soon as I'm done writing this post, I will go back to page 1 and fix those issues in Followill. Remove the telling. Slowly weave in the new changes to remove the telling. Then get back to a place where I can let the muse run with wild abandon, and start the process again. Over and over, until my confidence returns. The confidence in my abilities. The confidence in my stories.
This is a lifelong marathon, not a sprint to the finish line, leaving me unable to race again.
Now, onto what you really want to know...
What's up with Hero?
Hero is approaching 300,000 words.
What does that mean?
If you're not in the publishing industry, you might not understand why some authors/publishers use word-count instead of page-count. Page-count shifts dependent on the device vs print- it's not an absolute and up to interpretation. I'll see x-amount of pages for a specific word-count listed, and wonder how the publisher managed to bloat a 200-page book into 400. Even I get confused when a book is listed as say 400 pages, when my 400-page book has twice as many words. A writer's version of penis envy, since it fits with the overall ED theme I have going here...
I use word-count for all working drafts and ebooks because it's accurate. Page-count will only be used on books published into print, where I personally numbered the pages. Again, that is up to interpretation, as font size matters. I'm not a size queen. Again, PE, some bloat the font to make it look longer. All I care about is a full story that offers me escape. Don't care if it's 20k or 200k. But length matters to some. I only mention it when giving updates, simply because I'm notorious for being long-winded and fear y'all think I'm slacking off.
By saying Hero is currently 300K, that is my way of justifying why it's not on the shelves. My way of offering proof that I am not twiddling my thumbs and making no headway.
What's the industry average?
On average, a full-length novel in my genres is between 50k-120k. Many books we read, a quick little escape, are 35-60k. Authors from major publishers, who release one book per series a year, generally those books are averaged 120K.
Hero is 300k in 6 months. Just a little over halfway finished, maybe closer to 2/3.
I'm not treading water. In 6 months, Hero is the length of what some authors output in 3 years. This is not me saying I'm better than anyone because my book is longer (the longer it is, the more hassle it is- trust me, this isn't a good thing). It's me weighing why the book is not for sale. I feel guilty for breaking my vow of taking a step back, but 3 years worth of work shouldn't be rushed. As that is the lesson I learned from the entire series needing to be rewritten and republished.
In the breaks I've taken during this 6-month journey, major changes have occurred. Epiphanies, like I used as an example with Followill. Hero wouldn't be the cerebral-f@ck it will become, without those steps back to let the story marinate, then evolve.
The pressure and performance anxiety stem from allowing the book time to become what it needs to be, to allow the muse to become inspired, to ensure I will never regret what I publish. There's no takebacksies anymore.
What's new with Hero?
Hero has a new title: Heroism. It's dual-narration, and Hero is masculine singular. Hero has a new cover for the same reason. Lips were zipped on whether or not anyone liked the cover, so I'll go by the loaded silence that like is not the emotion felt.
As its creator, do I think the cover fits the content?
Yes. Do I wish Kat's hair was more crimson? Yes. Is the cover final? Yes, unless I can somehow isolate that hair, because I am unhappy to report that her skin is the same shade as her hair, and we don't want a Kat with red skin. Snorts. I spent a good 3 days on that hair. I'll try again at another date. Maybe I'll learn a new trick or two before the book's release.
What happens next?
When Hero finally reaches the beta-reading process, I will work on updating my website, formatting a slew of books for print, as well as promos. In the mean time, I have to do right by Hero, by the muse, and for my sanity, which means I have to work on something else. There's a reason most authors either write standalones or numerous series, as no muse would be satisfied being stifled, and it would harm the story.
Followill is both a town and a surname.
Clearly it's still in its inception phase. Rayna Scott is a 17 year-old girl, deep in the south, interacting with a prominent family from the other side of the tracks. This coming-of-age angst fest is filled with struggles, heartbreak, triumphs, and failures. Going by the path set, it will evolve into a duology or trilogy, on the short side for me.
Will Followill see the light of day, when the others have not?
Yes. But I'll be a headcase before, during, and after, fearing readers' reactions, because I'm writing out of my comfort zone. A young woman of color. Venturing away from LGBTQ with a girl who only has the feels for boys. Relocating from the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast to the deep south.
Writer Rule: write what you know. I'm ditching those rules.
Par for the course, I have to lob angst bombs at the girl, witnessing her struggle to avoid them, drive through them, or suffer because of them. You can take me out of my comfort zone, but you can't take away my need to emotionally torture my characters to witness how they will react.
Will Hero ever see the light of day?
I'm known for short writing bursts, where I bang out an upwards of 50-70,000 words in a session, anywhere from 3-10 days without a break. One of those sessions would net me the foundation of an entire novel. Two of those sessions would finish Hero. I write based on my mindset and emotions, neither are in the right place for Hero at the moment. Never fear, Kat and Caleb run in my blood. I even have the foundation and outline created for the next in the series, Thief.
Thanks for listening to me ramble- Erica Chilson, the wicked writer isn't feeling too wicked or much of a writer at the moment. Like every novel in creation, humans are also a work-in-progress.
Delve into the mind of madness