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  1. CHAPTER TWO - Introduces protagonist, antagonist, setting, tone, inciting incident, and primary conflict. CHAPTER TWO _______________________________________ Mallory They say life can change in the blink of an eye. Mine changed in the carpool lane. After I pulled myself out of bed, after the blur of packed lunches, signed permission slips, and kisses, I received an unexpected email while dropping the girls off at school. One I wouldn’t notice or read for another thirty-four minutes. Those thirty-four minutes on that fateful Friday were filled with blissful ignorance of how the life I had built for myself would start crumbling around me. It seemed like just another ordinary day. I drove with the windows down. The California sun hit my face, and the wind blew back the loose strands of my hair. I sipped my coffee and sang along to Train’s Drops of Jupiter album. I swung by the dry cleaners and picked up Ryan’s suits, returned a call to my mother, and waved to Rebecca, my husband’s administrative assistant, who I passed at the intersection of Broadway and Fillmore on the way home. I stopped in our driveway and chatted with our neighbors, who were trimming their annoyingly immaculately maintained hedges. If I had known what was sitting in my inbox waiting for me, I wouldn’t have done any of those things. When I finally was sitting in front of my computer, I didn’t recognize the sender of the email. It was from a generic Yahoo account, truthteller55@yahoo.com, but the subject line was two simple words: Read Me. It was the type of email I usually disregarded as spam, but the subject line was so simple it caught my attention and made me pause. It came across as a pleading and urgent request from a friend, not the typical “Bad Babes All Access” junk mail that I deleted upon receipt. I clicked the subject line and staring back at me were two lines of text and an image that changed everything. Mallory, I debated sending this but decided I would want to know if it was me. This isn’t a one- time thing. Ryan has been cheating on you for months. I am so sorry. I froze. My hands shaking. The empty, nauseous feeling in my gut grew. Panic and fear swept over me as I hesitantly scrolled down to view the entire image. A grainy picture loaded on the screen, one that would live on in my head unwelcome for years and be recalled by the smallest of triggers. In it, my husband was in his office standing in front of his desk, not working. He was standing between the legs of his assistant, Rebecca, while she sat atop his desk. Her head was thrown back, mouth open in ecstasy. Even with bad lighting and a poor angle, his eyes appeared to be smiling while he licked up her neck. They thought they were alone. They were wrong. I could feel my face getting hot, the blood pooling in my cheeks as I stared at the screen. I closed my eyes and tried to take a few deep breaths to calm myself down, but it didn’t work. The rhythmic thumping of my heartbeat picked up pace and grew louder in my ears as I scrolled through the email and analyzed all the details of the photo, over and over again. Driving myself crazier with each passing minute. I scrutinized every piece of punctuation, every curve of their bodies, and every conversation I could recall having with Ryan in the weeks leading up to today. I scanned my memory trying to remember every interaction I had with Rebecca. Every time she answered his phone, added something to his calendar, or greeted me as I walked passed her into Ryan’s office. Were there tells I had missed along the way? She had been his assistant for three years. How long had this been going on? I would have been caught off-guard less if someone had driven a semi-truck through our house. After all, car accidents happen every day and are an expected part of life, but this betrayal was earth-shattering. How could he do this to the girls? What are they going to think when they find out? Who else knew? Were they all laughing at me? How long have I been lied to? The pathetic clueless wife. I continued spiraling and obsessing. I counted the number of words in the message and would later realize while lying in bed that night, that it was the same number of minutes it took me to open the email after it had been sent. Thirty-four. It surely couldn’t be a coincidence and must mean something. A sign. A warning from the universe. My mind raced days, weeks, and months into the future as I tried to strategically plan every action and counter-reaction that might happen once I confronted him. After several hours of my crazed examination of anything I could recall or get my hands on, I stopped and called Colleen. Ryan might have been my husband, but Colleen was my person. She answered on the second ring and listened patiently as I spilled all the details, my concerns about the girls, how the situation would play out if I ignored the email versus how it would play out if I confronted him. Then I repeated for the hundredth time, “I’m so embarrassed. This is going to crush them,” and she interrupted me. “Stop! Please stop it. Mallory, breathe and hear yourself. I just listened to you go on about how this would affect the girls, how you couldn’t believe he could do this to them, how you don’t want them to grow up in a split home, and never once did you say how upset you were he did this to you. How hurt you are. How angry you are. How betrayed you are. How you don’t want to think about how he likely has been inside another woman or -” “Stop, Colleen. I don’t want to think about that,” I interrupted, my voice catching in my throat as I tried to clear the image from my head. Seeing it on paper or in my inbox was one thing but having the image of his infidelity live out inside my head was too much to bear. My imagination was a dangerous place where extreme scenarios played out daily. I squeezed my eyes shut and shook my head in frustration. “Of course, you don’t. No one does. But don’t you see, you aren’t jealous or scorned for yourself. You’re reacting for the girls. Mal, be honest with me for a minute. Did you see this coming? Are you even in love with him anymore? Because for someone that just found out her husband has been having an affair, you aren’t nearly as pissed off or hysterical as you should be”. Instinctively, my hand squeezed down on the arm of the chair, and I leaned forward defensively. “Seriously, Colleen? I find out my husband is cheating on me, and this is your response? I’m hanging up now”. “Mal, wait...” But I didn’t wait. I hung up before she could get another word out. I picked up the cold cup of coffee I had been nursing for almost an hour and walked to the back patio, propping myself up in one of the wicker chairs. Knees pulled to my chin, I stared out across the meticulously manicured lawn in a daze. Ryan had paid more attention and care to our grass than our marriage. Not a blade was out of place. Clean, straight, crisscross lines showed where he had pushed the mower the night before. How had I missed this? I braced myself for the tears that were supposed to come, but they never did. I willed them to the surface. Nothing. Instead, anger bubbled. I stood and marched through the house directly to our master bedroom, threw back the door to our walk-in closet, grabbed his overnight bag from the top shelf, and began angrily balling up and stuffing his clothing inside. Shirts, ties, pants, shoes, anything I could grab. Some went in the bag still on the wooden hangers. I couldn’t be bothered to do it neatly. I didn’t want to have to look at anything that reminded me of him. When the bag was full, I grabbed the empty laundry basket from the corner and started stuffing his belongings into that too. Within minutes, his side of the closet was empty except for a row of empty swinging hangers. Throwing the overnight bag on top of the full laundry basket, I made my way back toward the backyard. The corners of my lips crept into a smile as the grass tickled the bottom of my feet. I closed my eyes and began throwing his belongings across the lawn. When the last shirt hit the ground, I marched toward the spicket and turned on the sprinkler before walking back to my chair on the patio to take in my work. I don’t know how long I sat like that, watching the sprinkler go round and round soaking his clothes and shoes and leaving muddy puddles on the lawn. An hour? Two? But when I was able to pull myself back to reality and named my feelings: anger, distrust, and rage, I realized sadness, jealousy, and shock were not among them. Colleen was right. She usually was. I picked up my phone and hit redial. “You don’t need to say it,” Colleen answered. “I’m sorry.” “I know you are. So, we’re going to leave him?” Colleen asked reluctantly. Bracing herself for my honest reply. “Yup,” I spat out, smiling at her use of we instead of you in her question. Even now she had paired us together as a dynamic duo. “I had that unread email in my inbox when I waved at her this morning. She is cheating with my husband, and she fucking waved at me like she wasn’t going straight to the office to slide her hand down his pants. I feel like a fool.” “Oh girlie, I wish I could make it better. Why don’t you drop the kids off at your parents? Give yourself some space and time to think and come stay with me in New York for the week. A change of scenery would do you good.” I sat up straighter in my chair. A flutter of hope filled my chest as I considered her offer. I hadn’t taken time alone in years. “I’ll book you a flight out on Monday morning. You won’t need to do a thing. Just pack and drop the girls off at your parents'.” “Okay,” I answered quickly before I could think my way out of it. “I love you.” “I love you, too,” she responded. I could hear the hug she so desperately wanted to give me in the tone of her voice. I set the phone down and stared out across the lawn strewn with Ryan’s sopping wet clothes. The blood rose in my cheeks again. Each perfectly cut blade of grass that hadn’t been touched by the sprinkler or my temper tantrum seemed to taunt and anger me further. Screw Ryan and his stupid lawn. I’d see to it that he knew the grass wasn’t always greener on the other side.
  2. My best friend is going to die. And it’s my fault. That was the accusation screaming inside my head—like the chorus of a heavy metal song—when the doctor came striding in, asking about tacos. “Chicken or beef?” the nurse added. She was wearing magenta scrubs bright enough to blind someone. Maybe both their vision had been compromised. Could they not see the body right in front of us? “It’s this little game Doctor Mullion likes to play, asking what she should order for lunch,” the nurse explained. “My personal vote is pork.” Little game? My best friend is going to die. And it’s my fault. After rubbing a spurt of sanitizer onto her hands, the doctor took a few steps closer. “So Molly—it is Molly, right?” I must have nodded. “Molly, you’ll have to forgive my growling stomach. But I heard you might be able to help us figure out what happened to your friend. As far as you know, is this her first benzodiazepine overdose?” “No—no. See…that’s the thing,” I stammered, distracted by the tube protruding from Cate’s mouth. A different doctor had intubated her upon arrival, breezing out the door before I could ask any questions of my own. “This isn’t some sort of drug overdose. I keep telling everyone that, but no one seems to be listening.” I then sucked down a deep breath before repeating everything I’d already told the EMTs: What Instant Ten was. How I’d gotten it. And what I suspected might have gone wrong. “So let me get this straight,” the doctor said, folding her arms across her chest. It was impossible to miss the side glance she and the nurse exchanged—confirmation I was next in line for a drug test. “You think your friend’s overdose isn’t an overdose at all. It’s a side effect from a magical invention called Instant Ten…which you got from a girl named Van?” She didn’t let me answer. “And may I ask…is this so-called Instant Ten something you’ve been using as well?” I admitted that it was. “But obviously, I had no idea it was dangerous.” “Right. But then doesn’t it seem a bit odd you aren’t suffering any sort of life-threatening reaction yourself?” Life-threatening. My best friend is going to die. And it’s my fault. I shook my head, determined to prove my point. “I know how this all sounds—like an episode straight out of The Twilight Zone or Black Mirror. And I have no idea why the same thing hasn’t happened to me. But I promise it’s the truth!” I then began rummaging through my purse—a cesspool of toys and used tissues and half-eaten granola bars—insistent on showing them Instant 10. “Just give me a second, and I’ll find it again.” “That really won’t be necessary,” the doctor said, dodging the miniature fire truck I’d accidentally tossed toward her head. “Molly, I’m sure this is all a big shock. However, let me assure you, we see BZD overdoses each and every day, and these are the telltale signs: vomiting, muscle slackness, erratic breathing, pupil dilation, loss of consciousness…” She was ticking symptoms off as casually as a waitress reciting beverage choices but didn’t get the chance to finish. Because the machine hulking in the corner, watching over us like an armed guard, suddenly switched from chirping to red-alert beeping. And as a swarm of nurses came charging in, barking new accusations—Respiratory distress! Plummeting oxygen levels!—Cate’s bed went churning out the door. “Wait—what’s happening? Where are you going?” I tried to keep pace with them in the hallway but was quickly edged to the side by the fluorescent nurse. “They’re moving her to the ICU, which is facing significant capacity constraints. But I promise your friend is in good hands. Let’s get you back to the waiting room, okay?” “But I can’t just leave her. You don’t understand!” And despite my ongoing protests, with a few quick steps, the nurse somehow steered me all the way back to the ER lobby, asking that I take a seat. Instead, I paced alongside the front desk like a caged tiger, my mind jumping from regret to panic to despair—an exercise so exhausting, I eventually collapsed onto one of the blue padded chairs. Head falling into my hands, I allowed my fingernails to dig into the tender flesh where the hair had been ripped from my scalp just minutes before the ambulance came hurtling into my driveway. I wondered if I might go into cardiac arrest. A survival mechanism: my heart’s way of rejecting further trauma. There simply wasn’t a world in which I could handle another loss of this magnitude. Not after what had happened to my mother. My best friend is going to die. And it’s my fault. But wouldn’t Cate herself be the first to say that I needed to stop thinking negative thoughts? Positive visualization! Manifest your thoughts into reality. I closed my eyes, trying to picture her laughing instead of gagging on that tube. I opened my eyes. I’d tried to stop her, hadn’t I? But had I tried hard enough? I whipped my phone from my purse, anxious to see if Van had finally replied to my earlier barrage of messages: 10:04 a.m. Van? R u there? Something’s wrong VERY WRONG I know u said not to share Instant 10 But it was used w/o my permission And now … Something terrible has happened PLEASE CALL ME 10:12 a.m. Van, I’m serious CALL ME NOW OR I’M CALLING 911 10:33 a.m. I am BEGGING u to help me This is a matter of life and death!!! Still nothing in return. Such cruel silence—the opposite of the instant gratification I’d been conditioned to crave by the glowing box held in my hand; a hunk of glass and precious metal that could do anything I told it to. Almost anything. It couldn’t fill Cate’s lungs with air. It couldn’t undo the past. My thumbs had just launched an attack on the screen—violently tapping a new round of messages to Van—when a blur of movement filled my peripheral vision. Looking up, I expected to find the same nurse from before. But there was no magenta. Only gray. Gray blazers. Putty-colored pants. And the blur was actually two people. People who I could tell weren’t hospital staff. Just like the officers who showed up on my doorstep after the episode with my daughter…these people had badges. And when I tried to speak, I swallowed my defense whole. I was trying to help. To make things better. I never meant to hurt anyone.
  3. Raj could hear her husband’s voice through the wall separating their home offices. He was laughing. It didn’t sound like a work call. She moved closer, craning her neck to listen, trying to identify the voice. Alex had the phone on speaker, chatting on the phone with who sounded to be an old colleague and friend. “I miss working together,” a female voice bubbled with a girlish inflection. “All those late-night Thai food runs,” said Alex. “The boba tea!” They laughed at the same time. “You always drank it way too late and then you couldn’t sleep,” he scolded playfully. “It allowed for more coding time!” He chuckled. “Still a gunner.” “Those were the good ole days. Really it hasn’t been the same.” “Well, you’re a hot shot now. And Singapore! Come on! If you asked, I’d follow you…” he teased. They laughed like close friends. They promised to keep in touch. --- By the 2nd COVID autumn, Raj was feeling burnt out. The past two years of the pandemic had afforded her a lot of work as a psychiatrist. Everyone was anxious or depressed or both. She had transitioned easily to video appointments and work from home. Her patients were scared of getting sick, scared of getting others sick, overwhelmed by homeschooling, stressed by working from home, sick of their family, and missing their friends. Any of those things could have applied to her, but she didn’t have time for feelings. The voice of her dad, and the voice of her husband, were in her head. “Stay focused, do your work, make money when you can.” Things that were stressful before, were traumatic. Things that were disasters before, were even more disastrous in the context of shelter in place. They had the newest iteration of the California fire season with wildfires and smoke while homeschooling and working from home. They had civil unrest and a racial reckoning while worrying about a highly contagious virus. She noticed that patients, who she had seen for years, bread and butter stress and anxiety patients, the worried well, were experiencing mood and thought issues that required mood stabilizer and antipsychotic medications to manage. She was hearing more and more stories of drug overdoses and suicides. And the suicides that she was hearing about weren’t the typical pill overdose. A friend in the community stabbed himself to death. People were treating her differently as well. There were two main shifts. First, there were the people who were trying to be woke. A large proportion of the White women she worked with now spent a fair amount of their expensive time with her acknowledging their racial differences, their “privilege,” and wondering if Raj was “okay.” She had gotten reduced to her skin color, and the assumption was that she was less than. It angered Raj that no one in this group even considered the idea that she might be more privileged than them. That she could eat them for breakfast. The second change was the growing number of people whose emails had a tone implying her service person position. “I’m going to need you to send in my prescription today.” She was starting to feel like the colored help. The way people talked about other people in their sessions with her was also becoming less kind and more extractive. “I only date guys who fly private.” The empathy from the first year of the pandemic had more than disappeared. A vision formed of what providing therapy was like for her. Raj laid nude on the coffee table, while patients rifled through her naked body, finding and synthesizing what they need for themselves. Any replenishment Raj may seek is for the purpose of the patients, so that they can always find what they need—a reflection, a counter, some humor, a story, a question. A memory from her history, the love and pain in her heart, the gleam in her eye. Maybe her guts on a platter, maybe some dried menstrual blood, a dripping pussy, a piece of her soul. Sometimes she got something back. Sometimes there was an exchange. But that was never the point. Because it was never for her to grab, touch, or take. In the fall, she started looking at the idea of getting a job outside of medicine. Maybe something analytical, something having to do with numbers. Something clean and orderly. Raj put some feelers out, and it seemed like a possibility. She also looked at the family budget and started talking with Alex about possible timelines to early retirement. Maybe if she could stay focused and bear with it for a few years, she could get to a place where she could just be left alone completely. Really, at this point in her life, she was lost. Psychiatry used to be a profession that fit her perfectly. She had been a natural, probably because she had been her family’s therapist since the day she was born. Supporting and poking holes in her dad’s fragile male ego. Carrying her mom through her depression. And intervening with institutional resources when her sister got suicidal. Psychiatry residency just gave her the vocabulary to explain feelings and phenomenon she knew in her bones. Raj knew that sitting with any person, she would be able to find that person within herself. She always loved stories, and specifically she loved women’s stories. Her psychiatric practice focused on the intersection of hormones and mood as well as on parenting, relationships, and the lives of working women (whether working for pay or not). She cared for about two hundred women, including some transwomen. In her personal life, all her friends were women, and some of her friends had started getting divorced and were on apps like Tinder, Hinge, and even Felds. She started paying closer attention to the patients, especially the late 30’s to early 50’s year old’s, who were dating. Their struggles were difficult for her to relate to. Raj didn’t really know many men. She knew her husband and vaguely the husbands of her friends. She only had about five men in her psychiatric practice. The black box of men was something new to study. She was getting tired of all the female energy. She was tired of all the emotions. She struggled to understand or relate to the pains the women she spoke with were having dating. But the varied sexual experiences piqued her curiosity. She knew of people her age participating in sex parties or hooking up with a stranger and then kicking him out of her bed. And then one afternoon, Alex announced that he had a possible job offer. According to him, he had been kidding around with a female ex-coworker about a promotion she recently received. The next day, she followed up with an email to Alex, cc’ing her hiring manager. The email read, “You were probably joking, but in case you weren’t, we would love to have you.” He showed Raj the email, the only catch being that the job would be in Singapore. Raj jumped on the opportunity. She didn’t need to know any information. They had always wanted to live internationally. She had been working remotely throughout the pandemic anyway and was desperate for a change. She encouraged him to learn more and possibly take the job. After a series of promising phone calls, video meetings, and emails with company leadership, Alex’s priority was making sure that his wife would be comfortable with the move. He wanted her input in the decision. They had always done everything together, made every life decision together. They decided to fly to Singapore to check out the situation. They toured the city, visited some international schools for their daughter, considered the housing options, and wandered around a couple of grocery stores. Sitting on the hotel balcony, they discussed their wants list and under what conditions he would decline the job. “I’m worried about Olivia and I getting lonely and sad.” Raj said. “That seems reasonable. What do you think you need to help that?” “I think we need a house big enough to host friends and family visiting.” “Good idea.” “That means you need to get paid enough for us to be able to afford that. It’s expensive here.” “I feel like I’d rather get paid more heavily with stock than cash.” Alex floated an idea. “I get that, but we need to pay the bills.” “What about Olivia’s schooling?” Alex asked. “We’ll need an international school. One that would be a smooth transition from the US and back to the US if we return.” “Two that we visited seemed good.” “Yep, but they cost.” Raj reminded him. “When you tally up all the additional costs, it’s definitely more expensive than staying home. I’ll write out a list of the additional expenses, so they understand that. What about your patients?” “I've been seeing them over video because of the pandemic, so I can just continue doing what I'm doing.” “Are you going to be okay with me working all the time? The job might involve travel as well.” Alex worried. “I can do it. Olivia is a big girl now. We’ll miss you, but we’ll manage. I’m so proud of you. This is a big deal.” It really had been a joint decision. So, it wasn’t necessarily problematic that Raj was not included in the actual job negotiation, but it was certainly different. It was a new experience for her to sit by the hotel pool alone, waiting for her husband to call her to let her know if they would be completely upending their lives, or not. She thought of her mom, dragged along from city to city, children in tow, for her husband’s career. Her mom was the last thing Raj ever wanted to be. But this was not that. She would still be working full-time. Alex had always wanted her to be a full partner. Raj and her husband were making this decision together. They came back from Singapore energized for their future. Their ten-year-old daughter, Olivia, had spent their time away with friends. She had an extremely close-knit group of friends who she had known since kindergarten. Additionally, Olivia had friends in the area from preschool and still others from the birthing group that Raj had been in when she was pregnant. Anxiously awaiting their return home, their daughter was not happy with news of the move. Not happy was putting it lightly. She was distraught. They worked out a plan so that she could spend most weekends either hosting or attending sleepovers with her closest friends. They also decided to go to Singapore as a family for her one-week February and April school holidays, so she could get a sense of the place. Raj’s mother-in-law, Nadia, was surprisingly cooperative with the idea of moving. Unlike her usual behavior, she didn’t complain, argue, or bargain. Raj figured Nadia had finally recognized that she had limited options and needed their help and housing. --- Raj sat at her desk, laptop open to a Zoom window, talking with Carol, her patient of five months. Carol was married with two high school children. She also had a secret boyfriend of several years. She and her husband hadn’t had sex or any intimacy in years. “Tom has been talking with his therapist about the idea of opening up the marriage since we don’t have sex anyway.” “How do you feel about that?” “I think it’s an interesting idea. And it makes sense. Neither one of us is getting what we want from the other.” “Okay, but you look like you have reservations.” “My only concern is that 93% of couples who open their marriage end up getting divorced.” “You’ve talked about the idea of divorce before.” “Yeah, but I don’t want a divorce. Not right now anyway.” “Well, the thing to know about polyamory is it’s a lot of talking. It’s more talking than sex.” “Really. Why do you say that?” “You have to talk about the boundaries, rules, and expectations. And probably you’ll have to have those discussions multiple times, with maybe multiple people. Everyone has to be clear on everything and each person will have feelings about it. You might not agree on everything off the bat, and you’ll have to come up with compromises. For example, what would be the rules around communication if you kissed, or dated, or slept with someone else? Some couples are don’t ask, don’t tell. Some couples share everything. There are potential upsides and pitfalls to either.” “I see.” Raj waited while Carol’s chewed on her thoughts. “I talked to Steve, my boyfriend, about it. I thought he’d be more excited than he was.” “There’s another person, in addition to your husband, that you would need to communicate with. Do you have a husband and a boyfriend only or are both open relationships and you could date other people also? You’d have figure out the rules with your boyfriend as well.” “Oh boy.” “It gets complicated fast. There are books, which may be worth reading. Mating in Captivity, Polysecure, and The Ethical Slut. Also maybe restarting with your couple’s therapist to hash it out.” “I guess there is a lot to think about and talk about before we decide to do anything.” --- When Raj first met Alex, he was in an open, long-distance relationship with a dental student in New York and hooking up with a local sushi waitress. Granted the open relationship seemed an obvious ploy for a handsome twenty-five-year-old guy to get more action, but he insisted that this was the Russian, if not general European, way. He swore his parents had slept with other people. He wasn’t even sure that his dad was his biological father. Alex had olive skin, thick black hair, and strong angular features. He was in good shape, but not athletic shape, preferring to use his time to read, code, and talk with friends. His father, Misha, was fairer in complexion and a sportsman—hunting, skiing, and enjoying the vigor of jumping into icy cold pools. Alex’s theory was that his mother slept with her professors in the university, and he thought that one of those men may be his father. His parents had a pleasant enough marriage, going on vacations together. Though Alex’s mom would never raise her voice or openly disagree with Misha, Nadia was clearly bored by her husband and resented cooking and cleaning up after him after her long days at work. She often described a man she was in love with, who sounded nothing like Misha. Raj’s parents had a miserable marriage. They hated each other, always yelling at each other or giving each other the silent treatment, but they would never cheat or get divorced. They believed in duty, obligation, monogamy. Despite their traditional, conservative views on marriage, her cultural upbringing was one of distinctly liberal political views—as applied outside the house. She was taught to support cultural diversity, feminism, gay rights, and the lifting of the social classes. But in the house, the family functioned in a traditional and conservative way. Her dad was the sole breadwinner and her mother the housewife, though not an obedient one. Raj’s mom found ways to exert the power she had, through cooking foods she knew her husband hated, maintaining a certain level of chaos in the home, and refusing to accompany him to work events. With time, their disdain for each other only became more obvious and intolerable to those around them. From the time she was born, they wanted her to be different. South Asian people always asked her what her name was short for. “Raj must be your nickname, right.” “No, it’s just Raj.” People joked, “Your parents must have been expecting a boy.” “Not that I know of. They said they wanted me to be king, and nothing less.” Raj would reply. Raj’s mom’s mantra to her was, “Study, get a good job, don’t be like me.” Her dad told her, “Be a feminist. Sign up for AP physics and get an A in the class.” Raj wasn’t allowed to do any chores in the house. Her job was to study and make a better life for herself. She knew what that meant in terms of career and income. She had no alternative models to her parents, as to what a better life looked like in regard to love and marriage. Before Alex, she’d never known anyone who actually lived a lifestyle outside the traditional rules of marriage. Everything coming out of Alex’s mouth regarding open relationships was scandalous. Alex had a way of pushing buttons and taking devil’s advocate type positions on many topics. In fact, everything he was saying about his parents was so out there, that Raj doubted the truth of any of it. As their relationship grew more serious and she met his parents, then in their 60’s, the idea of their promiscuity and Alex being illegitimate became harder for her to wrap her mind around. His parents lived in a tiny one-bedroom apartment in Oakland, on a street with a Rolls Royce and a Jaguar that probably belonged to drug dealers. Their home was stuffed to the gills with a combination of Russian memorabilia and Americana tchotchkes, and there was food hidden in all the drawers and cupboards of the kitchen, living room, and bedroom of the apartment. Alex’s mom, Nadia, described herself as a naïve and diligent student, growing up in a religiously Jewish family. She had met Alex’s dad, Misha, at the age of nineteen. Raj tried to show interest in Alex’s parents, but she found being with them taxing. Nadia didn’t help, saying Raj was immature, silly, and naïve and calling Alex a cradle robber, when Raj was only three years younger than him. Raj, though fairly traditional in her personal lifestyle choices, was an open proponent of sex education and sexually supportive communities. She had been the holder of the condoms in her college dorm, counseled students on healthy relationships, did a medical school rotation at Planned Parenthood, and volunteered at a local AIDS hospice. Her plan was to find a career in women’s reproductive health. If any of these topics came up within earshot or Nadia, her mother-in-law made a face of such strong disapproval, shaking her head. “I was good when I was young. I didn’t know any of the things you know about. Girls used to be sweet and about love. My family was so religious. I didn’t even think about sex.” Raj couldn’t square how Nadia could have grown up in a religious Jewish family in Stalinist Russia, especially since Nadia didn’t seem to know any basic Judaism. Raj studied Hebrew, Torah, and Jewish beliefs and practice as part of her conversion. Nadia didn’t know the fundamental rules of Shabbat or kosher. The second was Nadia’s proclamation that she was attracted to a man’s mind. Misha was sweet, funny, sportive, but an intellectual? He fixed washing machines for a living, seemed to be completely incompetent in the house, and endlessly told old stories about playing sports and drinking with buddies. Nevertheless, at some point, Raj started shushing Alex on the topic of his mother’s infidelity, finding it disturbing that he would slander his mom with a charge of adultery. Besides, she didn’t want to encourage that line of thought in her new and developing home and family. Misha died in a nursing home in 2006 of a stroke. Nadia had left him slumped in the hallway of their apartment for the entire day before calling Alex that evening. By the time the paramedics arrived, hours and hours had gone by. Misha was alive but disabled to a level that was unsalvageable. There was no choice, but for him to go to a skilled nursing facility, where he resided for several months before he finally died. In 2007, the genetic mapping company, 23andMe, launched, and Alex was one of the first people to sign up. He was so enthusiastic about it that he got his mother, his cousins, Raj, Raj’s parents, and Raj’s sister to sign up. Everyone was excited to get a deeper knowledge of their heritage and health. Raj discovered that she was exactly what her parents said she was—100% Sri Lankan Tamil. By then, the idea of extramarital sex had become verboten in the house, so the reason for signing up was ostensibly for health and cultural lineage reasons only. It took a few years to get enough people worldwide to submit DNA for family mapping to become a mission the program could assist with anyway. When Ancestry.com and myHeritage launched, Alex signed up for those as well. His enthusiasm spreading to the rest of the family, they all uploaded their DNA information to the two new sites. In 2018, Alex found a genetic match who didn’t fit with any other known relatives on his mother or father’s sides. Alex sent the match an email. “I see that we are related. I don’t know who my father is. I am wondering if you could help me.” Including information about his age, birthplace, mother, and her school and work history. Astoundingly, the response back was, “I think I know who your dad is.” A few days later, they spoke, and Alex had a name, Ilya. Tragically, Ilya died three years prior, alone while on a walk in the woods near his home in Moscow. The body wasn’t found for three days. The Russian national guard had been called to aid in the search. Alex knocked on Nadia bedroom door and sat down on the bed with her, speaking gently in Russian. Raj sat in the dining room, listening in. She had picked up enough Russian over the years to generally follow most conversations. It was a skill that caused Nadia to view her with suspicion. “I found my dad on 23andMe.” “How did you find your dad online?” “I found my biological father, Ilya, he worked with you at the university.” “Your father is Misha.” Nadia’s voice rising. “I had a DNA match with Ilya’s nephew.” Alex’s voice rose to match hers. “I have a photo of your father’s sister as a baby.” She got up from her bed to produce a photo of a baby. “How could I have that if Misha wasn’t your father?” She pushed Alex out of her room, slamming the door. Conversation after conversation, day after day, Alex explained that the DNA didn’t lie. With his first connection to Ilya’s family, he began reaching out to more people with his story. Some of the older adults even remembered Alex’s mother. She had worked in the research lab under Ilya’s supervision. Eventually, Nadia came clean, owning her indiscretion in a small voice. “He loved me. He wanted to leave his wife for me, but I said no. He visited us in the hospital after you were born. The stone statue of the deer is from him. It’s part of a pair. Ilya kept it’s mate in his office.” The statue was in Alex’s office. Raj had always thought it was strange that he kept it there, displaying it prominently. Disney-esque, it didn’t fit Alex’s aesthetic at all. But for some reason, Alex found it comforting, even though he hadn’t known where the statue had come from. Alex held his mom. More than the sexual-liaison—after all, that act did gift her Alex—Raj was bothered by the lying, the hypocrisy, and years in which she had to put up with Nadia’s judgment, criticism, and stonewalling. Even after her confession, coming out of her room to silently hug Raj, Nadia continued to criticize and antagonize Raj. --- It was the afternoon; the soft Bay Area sunlight streaking in through her front windows and dappling along her desk and wall. She had just closed the Zoom window with another young woman who was struggling with her dating life. The woman had had sex with a man she met online, and he wasn’t returning her texts. She felt hurt, used, and rejected, lost in knowing how to proceed in her romantic life. Raj asked her usual set of questions. Did you want to have sex? The woman hadn’t been sure, but she felt she was supposed to. What do you feel is the purpose of sex? To get a guy to date you, the woman had answered. What about your own pleasure? What do you enjoy? She hadn’t thought about that before. Raj gave her patient her talking points. There are only four reasonable reasons to have sex. To make a baby. To emotionally connect with someone you love. To get paid. For your own pleasure. Raj pointed out that the first three reasons being irrelevant in her case, the only reason for her to be having sex was because she wanted to, for her own pleasure. And to be able to do that, she needed to have a deeper sense of her sexuality. The woman had never thought of sex in those terms, and she had never given much thought to her sexuality beyond the trite labels of cisgendered, straight woman. In the ten minutes between patients, there was a knock at the door. “Come in.” Raj called out. Alex opened the door and stepped into the small space that was Raj’s home Zoom office. Raj turned in her chair to face him. Alex hovered in the doorway. “I’ve been thinking. I know you’ve been feeling burnt out with psychiatry.” “God yes!” “And I’m in a better financial position with this new job.” “Yeah, that’s so awesome. I’m really happy for you.” “You’ve done so much for our family.” “Same as you.” “No, you work full time, making the same or more than me most years, you keep track of all of Olivia’s school, friend, and summer camp stuff, you find time to sit with her and process her emotions and relationships. You’re amazing.” “Awww. Alex. I love you.” She jumped up to give him a hug. “I want to be the provider.” “What?” “I want to take on more of the financial responsibility. I want you to be able to step back from your work. Not have to be a psychiatrist if you don’t want to.” “What would I do?” Raj was shocked. “Whatever you want. Just do you.” “I don’t even know what that means.” “You’ll figure it out. I love you.” ---
  4. Prologue 13 Years Ago 7:08 PM Liz Liz hated sunsets. And the late September sky was already awash in bruised hues, outlining rows of gnarled apple trees against the slash of dark horizon. She knew most people enjoyed the colorful blurring of day into night, but those same people had clearly never hunted—or been hunted—by dragons before. They were deadliest at dusk, when mottled dragon scales became nearly invisible in the riot of color. Somehow, creatures with wingspans larger than most commercial aircrafts were rendered almost undetectable. Liz was hot beneath her fatigues; sweat pooling at the base of her spine as she lay flat, propped up on her elbows, rifle pressed into her left shoulder. She had orders, like the half dozen other strike teams peppering the ridge overlooking the valley on either side of her. Whatever they were looking for tonight was supposed to be big—big enough to warrant pulling most of her class out of training for a rare demonstration. She blew out a slow, measured breath. “We probably won’t see anything anyway,” Joseph grumbled. Her older brother sounded listless, agitated even. She settled deeper into the shadow of the nearest apple tree, peering through her scope, ignoring the sour smell from rotting apples strewn about her. “You ok?” she asked instead. He sat just a few feet from her, back pressed against some of the large rocks that formed their cover, rifle laying placidly in his lap. His gaze drifted down into the valley too, but he didn’t look happy about it—also unlike him. Joe loved the hunt, and he’d been waiting for an opportunity like this his whole life. But his hazel eyes were faintly glazed with ... boredom? Worry? She was used to him being assured—the oldest, the best of them. Her skin tingled, and she shifted her weight nervously, repositioning her sights. She concentrated on her elbows sinking into the damp earth, the sound of the wind rustling leaves around them, and the steadiness of her own breathing. The orchard trees were getting murkier by the second between the dark and fog that seemed to be drifting in. She frowned. The fog was moving in fast. Too fast. Something snapped to their left, and their bodies simultaneously sharpened with motion. Liz swung her legs around and focused her rifle, wincing as her headset crackled to life in a too-loud gurgle of static. Her hand flew up to her ear to silence the garbled commands struggling to coming through. Static flared painfully, and then the line went dead. “What the—“ She looked back, and paused. Her brother’s face had formed a sort of wordless question, eyes wide and mouth parted slightly. “Joe?” He launched to his feet without a word—and without his gun—bolting through the tangle of branches behind them in a frenzied burst of motion. She didn’t wait. She should have waited. He’d always been faster than her—damn him—but she ran anyway, ducking fruit laden branches and slipping on slick, smushed apple beneath her boots. He wasn’t even trying to be quiet. They were trained to cover ground quickly and quietly, but Joe was crashing through branches and trees. They might as well have been shining a spotlight on their location. It didn’t make any sense, and the full realization of what that meant slammed into her as she rounded the trunk of a particularly large tree and barreled right into Joe’s broad back. Siren Song. Her brother was standing in the middle of a small clearing, face turned skyward, gaze cloudy. They’d always been decently matched for height and strength, but even as she threw both arms around him and shoved him towards the treeline, he scrambled away from her. “I’m here,” Joe shouted upward, the fog curling around them. “I’m sorry,” he said, but not to her. She tried to wrestle him towards cover, ignoring panic sluicing through her at the noise, at Joe’s Siren-addled brain, at the way the orchard seemed to writhe and breathe around them with every sound they made. “Don’t listen to them—Joe, it’s a Siren Song.” Only one kind of creature sent out a Siren Song, robbing you of reason right before the kill. She raised the butt of her rifle, prepared to knock him out if it meant saving him—but then he was looking at her, eyes clear and confused. “Liz?” he asked hoarsely. She opened her mouth to respond, but never got the chance. Pain exploded above her knee as something big and sharp pierced her leg. Her vision went white – shit, shit, SHIT as she hit the ground hard and felt a sudden warmth saturating her pant leg. And she was bleeding …. dragging … dying … against pebbles and something was pulling her towards the trees. She writhed and clawed at exposed roots but she couldn’t catch her breath, couldn’t catch hold of anything as her nails split and fingertips muddled, couldn’t wriggle around to see what had a hold of her, even though she knew—she knew. Blood streamed down her thigh and pooled at her stomach, fire streaking through her veins, as she managed to finally stare into the face of a dragon too large to have crept up silently behind her. But there he was, his dark snout streaked with her blood and his toothy grin clamped firmly around her thigh. Green eyes the size of saucers gleamed in the coming dark. He hoisted her up several feet into the air before she even had a moment to draw a dizzy breath, acid burning in her throat. She’d dropped her gun. She reached weakly for the Dragonsbreath grenade attached to her belt. She looked down the nose of a grinning marbled grey and black dragon, whose pointed snout and hand-sized teeth were sunk firmly into her leg as he beat his powerful wings and rose into the air. Class 3. Young Male. He rumbled in his throat, but he hadn’t roasted her, which either meant he couldn’t manage a strong enough flame to reignite his sparks so quickly, or he didn’t want her dead … yet. She groaned as she tried to reach up and beat at his nose, gasping as his bite tightened, blurring her vision. She was going to throw up. This was all wrong. Her brain still rattled off the stats anyway: Wingspan 30 feet. Controls weather patterns. And, in a moment of blinding clarity, she realized: you’re too small. You’re not the dragon we’re looking for. The dragon rumbled again, in a gurgle that almost sounded like laughter. She hung five feet off the ground—ten—as her reaching fingers finally closing around the Dragonsbreath. Her hands shook as she met the Class 3’s glare—her fingers slick with her own blood as she yanked it free and pulled the pin. Green eyes narrowed. “Boom.” she hissed. All of her was screaming—burning—as she wrenched her arm back and hurled it towards his stupid grinning face. B O O M. She hit the ground hard, gasping. She could hear the furious roar of the Class 3 overhead, watched as the Dragonsbreath’s green fire climbed up the side of his maw, the acid burning through scale and bone as it raced up snout to spine. She watched until he drifted out of focus, the glow of the green fire illuminating the frantic beating of his wings as he tried to escape the flames. Breathtaking. She just watched the dragon burn, his agonized screeching splitting the night. It was the most beautiful thing she’d ever heard. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t see straight. She lay gasping, aching everywhere—her ears ringing. She blinked once, twice, trying to clear her head as the Class 3 drifted hazily out of focus. Her limbs were leaden, and her hazy vision was abruptly replaced by the alarmed face of her brother. “Liz? Liz?” His dark hair was askew, eyes wet and wide. She’d never seen him cry. His hand was heavy on her thigh, pinching and tearing; his face tightened in horror, “Your leg—” She didn’t know specifics: specifically where she was hurt, specifically where fire coursed through her, specifically where residual Dragonsbreath acid was eating through her own clothing. Everywhere was pain and fire—acid and burning nausea building in her chest, and she would be sick ... she would be sick and— He pressed a finger to his mic, calling for help that roared to dullness in her ears. She wouldn’t be conscious for long. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, to her this time, yes. She tried to grasp the hand that had wrapped around her own, his fingers tightening. Joseph was screaming again for help, for backup, for anybody, and then there was another shattering roar, one she felt as much as heard through her entire body. But it didn’t matter. Joseph never even saw it coming. In one snap of too-large teeth, his entire torso disappeared in a maw that emerged from the fog and engulfed. Dragon saliva hissed as it sprayed the ground. Teeth the length of her forearm, three times bigger than the Class 3’s, missing her by inches. Its immeasurable form darkened the too-bright sky—incomprehensible. Impossible. No matter how much she tried after, she couldn’t recall what happened after. Did she reach for him? For her gun? Her radio? Did she scream? She must have screamed. Did she just lay there and wait to die? She wished she knew. Would it make a difference if she knew? All she could recall was how her brother’s legs had dangled as they drifted, almost lazily, before disappearing into a muddied swirl of a sherbet-colored sky. She didn’t remember the moment when he ceased to be. She couldn’t seem to forget when she realized he was gone.
  5. Opening Scene: Introduces protagonist, setting (flip-flops between two setting: past and present), tone and foreshadows the primary conflict. 1 Mesa, AZ (ten years ago) Corey laid lifeless. Her eyes had yet to open and she was already resentful of the day before her. Her cheek clung to her pillowcase, still damp with tears from the night before. And then, like clockwork, came the weight, rich with pain, nuzzling into its usual spot within her sternum. She opened her eyes and slowly, a blurry room began to merge into focus. Corey’s eyes fixed upon the metal object atop her nightstand. Beams of light slipping through the window promoted it with a brilliant glare. Her switchblade. It taunted her, as it did every morning these days. Corey gazed at it longingly and, had she perhaps one more ounce of strength within her, just a flicker of energy, she might have reached for it and finally put an end to all this misery. It was hers for the taking. She just wondered when the morning would come when she would finally find the strength to do so. Corey let out a wretched cough, shuffling her vocal chords like a deck of cards. Her throat was raw. The single last noise it had produced were the screams a a nightmare, at least three days old by now. Mornings were the hardest for eighteen-year-old Corey Collins. Nevertheless, she wrestled herself out of bed, clamored into her ancient truck and begin driving. Aimlessly, mindlessly, Corey drove. Success—another morning she’d avoided killing herself. Three hours had passed, without trace, meaning, nor purpose, when Corey suddenly found herself bouncing along a desolate dirt road, snaking her way through the most curious of rock formations. “Where the hell am I?” Corey thought, glancing in all directions. She thrust her truck into park and stepped out, a billow of maroon dirt kicked up under her Converse One Stars. Not another living soul in sight. These rock formations, with their smooth facades and curling angles, seemed to be prompting her in. Corey had lived in the Southwest all her life, but never had she encountered terrain like this before. The land, the air, it all felt different here. For the first time in a long time, Corey could breathe. A ragged “For Sale by Owner” sign along the side of the road had caught her eye while driving in. Corey called the number listed and, when an old, brittle voice answered, she was caught off guard. Two months later, the land was hers. When Corey relocated to Sedona, Arizona, at the tender age of eighteen, she knew nothing about managing twenty-seven acres of wild, high-desert land, but that was exactly the point. She wasn’t looking for something easy. Corey was looking for something new that she could wrangle and pour herself into. Something to occupy her mind and distract her. This property at 22 Carriage Way had become a fresh start for Corey. It was the beginning of a new life, allowing her to start over and forget all that had been. 2 Sedona, AZ This was the sweet spot of her day. The Arizona sun surrendered its feverish grip, making way for some much needed relief. Corey squinted as she scanned her land from her disintegrating Adirondack chair, perched west to regard the sunset. Her land was quiet and tucked away on the remote outskirts of Sedona, miles away from any traces of the touristy parts. Ten laborious years of molding and pruning this property to her liking had left it a sight to behold. Rolling hills ablaze with wildflowers, a bustling chicken coop, a handcrafted greenhouse overflowing with bounty and, of course, the many trails weaving their way across her acres like a primitive cross stitch pattern. But perhaps most spectacular of all were the bordering red rocks, with their erosive past hidden deep within their iron sediment — this was the aspect of the land that Corey loved most. There was a kinship of sorts, an understanding that the past had not always been kind. Corey took a sip from her glass, the cool water quenching her throat like a tidal wave. She stretched her long, sun drenched legs out in front of her as the final beads of sweat evaporated from her brow. When the sun had disappeared behind the mountain tops, Corey headed inside to began her nightly routine. She threw a couple of logs into her cast iron wood burning stove, placed a large kettle filled with water on top, then meandered into her bedroom where she stood weary in front of the mirror, loosening her braid and rustling her fingers through her long, golden brown strands. Corey retrieved her kettle and carefully poured the lukewarm water into her antique claw bathtub then grabbed her book and a fresh bar of soap. She pushed open the old French style windows and let the late day breeze, along with the last notes of light, spill in. She stepped into the bath and, as the warm water engulfed her, Corey eased her tired body in. The day’s work was complete, her body could rest, and her mind could get lost in the latest book she was reading. These fantastic stories about others and the lives they lived, surely far different from her own, kept her entertained, but perhaps more importantly than that, these books occupied her so that in the still, quiet moments, her mind couldn’t wander into the past. ————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————— 3 Mesa, AZ (ten years ago) Corey leaned back on the blanket as she watched her little brother standing next to her boyfriend on the riverbed in front of her. Mason’s young legs, squat and strong, launched his body into the air as he laughed watching the stone skip over the water’s surface. “Again!” he cried, clapping his hands. “Alright, look for another stone,” said Jack. “Here’s one!” Mason ran the stone over to be inspected by Jack. “Let’s see,” said Jack in a serious tone, as he turned the rock over in his hand. “Not too small, not too big, and look, flat as a pancake. Perfect.” Mason jumped again. “Five this time! Try to get five, because I will be five soon.” “Five skips for the almost-five year-old Mason!” Jack shouted as he sent the stone sailing. Corey smiled, her eyes fixated on Jack now. His back glistened as the sun shone off the thin layer of sweat that coated his skin. Ravines and ridges decorated his torso, leaving it no mystery that Jack was an athlete. “One, two, three, four….aww, only four.” said Mason. Jack lunged towards Mason and threw him up in the air, “Well then I guess that means you can’t turn five!” Mason howled with delight as he landed safely back into Jack’s arms. Later, as the three walked back to Jack’s car, Mason turned to his big sister, “I will still turn five, right Corey?” “Of course you will still turn five. Jack was just teasing,” Corey jostled his mop of blonde hair, blissfully unaware of the lie that had just sauntered from her lips. 4 Sedona, AZ The following afternoon was quite peaceful until his thunderous voice burst through the air. Corey was so startled, she nearly sawed her finger clean off. She had been working on her fence in the far west corner of her property, lost deep in the rhythmic hum of her sawing. There was no reason why a man’s voice should be nearing - not now, not ever. Corey lowered her saw, scanning in the direction of the voice. And there it was, a bobbing cowboy hat in the not too far distance, rising in and out of view between the sunflower stalks, and it was coming closer. Corey crouched low, concealing herself behind one of the many piñon trees inhabiting this section of her land. She positioned her lean frame behind the trunk and carefully peered around. “This way,” sounded the voice. Corey strained to make out a second, smaller figure, dutifully trailing alongside the taller man with the cowboy hat. “What if we can’t find her?” said the younger figure, clearly a boy. “Then we retrace our steps and track the other direction.” said the man. They were getting closer now. Corey’s heart quickened. She clutched her chest, in fear it might gallop straight out of her chest. “I don’t see any tracks.” said the boy. “You’re right son, I think we lost her.” There was a pause. “Well, hold on now, wait a second…what do we have here? Looks like someone’s been working.” They had to be no more than fifteen feet away by now. Corey clenched her eyes and listened as the sounds of their footsteps approached closer. And then – silence. Still and baited silence. Corey pressed back against the tree trying to will the trunk to open up and swallow her whole. Her body trembled as the footsteps sounded again, but only this time, with a hurried frenzy. “There she is!” roared the man. Corey’s head went light and her gut churned so deeply she was certain it had irreparably knotted itself, never to be the same again. She remained bound tight against her tree, eyes closed, breath held, waiting for whatever was to happen next. Boom – the gunshot echoed over Corey’s fields and off the nearby canyon walls. “I think I got her!” hollered that man, and off they ran. Corey listened intently as their footfalls grew farther away. Only then, when the sounds had all but disappeared, did she realize the tears that had been streaming down her face. She lifted her trembling fingers to her cheeks, brushing them away, and rose to her feet. Corey peered out from behind her tree just as the father and son had reached their fallen elk in the distance. Utterly drained, Corey remained perched against that piñon tree for the next two hours, until the duo had long since dragged their kill away, and the sun had called it a day. Only after the darkness emerged did Corey feel safe enough to move. For in the dark, Corey was invisible…the way she liked it.
  6. Hello everyone. This is the first chapter of my manuscript, women's fiction with speculative elements. This story began life in the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge. I had to write a 2500 word story with the prompts, ghost story, butler, and paralysis. The characters wouldn't leave me alone, so I turned it into a 4000-word short story that won first place in Writers Digest's Popular Fiction Awards, in the romance category. And they still wouldn't leave me alone, so now I am writing their entire story. lol Another attempt at a Pitch Three years after the car crash that killed her husband, 32-year-old photojournalist Emma Hill is floundering. She's lost her passion for her work—for her life. No one knows what really happened the night Danny died, and Emma plans to keep it this way. If Jane, her best friend and late husband's sister, ever found out, it would destroy their friendship, and Emma couldn't survive without Jane's support. But hiding the truth is wearing Emma down. On the anniversary of Danny's death, a very drunk Jane tells Emma it's time to stop wallowing and orders her to make a wish on the first star of the night. The word Nantucket randomly pops into Emma's mind. What follows is a string of impossible coincidences involving Nantucket that convince Emma something important is waiting for her there. She travels to the island, unsure of what to expect, and is thrilled when the island's haunted history rekindles her love for photojournalism. An old butler with mysterious ties to her past, and a young widowed author in a wheelchair with secrets of his own, help Emma realize she wants more from life to simply exist. But the only way to escape the ghosts in her past and have a chance for the happiness she longs for is to risk revealing her shameful secret. Chapter One Why is it that the best days burn by like the flash of a shooting star, but the ones you want so desperately to forget drag on for an eternity? I check my watch, heart sinking when it's only six o’clock. I swear, the more I will time to speed up, the slower it creeps by. I’m so done with this day, I'm ready to scream like a banshee. Somehow, espite the excessive amount of alcohol I’ve consumed, I manage to control this primal urge. Instead, I sink into the butter-soft embrace of my best friend Jane’s leather couch and blow out a long breath. Tugging at the edges of my navy-blue cardigan, I close my eyes and imagine being wrapped in Danny’s arms. Three years of almost constant wear have reduced my husband’s sweater to a tattered shell of its former self, and only the vaguest hint of his pine-scented aftershave lingers, but I can’t bring myself to throw it away. A hiccuping breath escapes as I swallow a sob. I flutter my lashes to halt the tears I've been trying so hard to suppress, but they come anyway. I drag a fingertip under each eye to remove the moisture, hoping Jane doesn't see. I promised her I wouldn't cry today. Jane walks into the room, catching me. “Oh, no. Don’t you dare. If you start, I will too, and then there’ll be no stopping us.” She places the open bottle of wine she’s carrying beside the box of tissues placed strategically on her sleek glass coffee table. She plucks a tissue out and hands it to me. “I’m sorry. I really thought this year was going to be different.” “Did you, though?” She drops to the couch beside me and gives one of my unruly auburn curls a gentle tug. “Come on, Emma. You cry at dog food commercials.” I huff, indignant. “I do not. I cry at the SPCA commercials. The ones with the sad-eyed puppies and kittens. A completely understandable reaction.” Despite her teasing, I know Jane doesn’t begrudge my tears. Danny was her brother, after all. She introduced us back when we were roommates in university. She misses him too. Jane’s my life preserver, the one who has kept me afloat these past few years. I don’t know what I’d do without her. Guilt flares, sending an involuntary shudder rippling through my body. If she ever discovers what really happened the night Danny died, she’ll never forgive me. None of her family will. “Only a few more hours to go.” She slides closer and lays her arm across my shoulders. “You’ve got this.” “Thank you,” I whisper. Her eyebrows arch. "For what?" “For, you know.” I give a helpless shrug. “Everything.” She squeezes my hand. I douse the flames of my guilt with another sip of wine. Jane always takes the day off work on the anniversary of Danny’s death, to make sure I’m never alone. No easy feat, considering she’s an anesthesiologist in high demand. And I’m endlessly grateful for her sacrifice. The first year she showed up at my place with a case of wine and three boxes of tissues. Not the healthiest coping mechanism, but I craved the oblivion alcohol promised. Since that first year, our wine consumption has dropped off, and we’ve realized home is not the best place for me to be. Now, we spend the day here, in her apartment, watching sappy chick flicks. So far, we’ve watched Valentine’s Day, Leap Year, and Sleepless in Seattle. We’ve just finished Crazy Stupid Love, one of our favorites. I defy anyone to not fall in love with that movie. The scene where Steve Carrel is cutting the lawn in the dark, and Julianne Moore is watching him from the dining room window, talking to him on the phone and pretending to need his help with the furnace. God, that scene guts me every time. It’s such a perfect representation of love. The pure, understated kind of love you know with unwavering certainty will never end. The kind of love I had for Danny. After a few more minutes of sniffling and snuffling, Jane jumps to her feet. She wobbles, a little unsteady. Small wonder. At five foot two, she’s a good six inches shorter than me and lighter by at least thirty pounds, but she’s matched my wine consumption glass to glass. Her cheeks are bright pink like they are every time she drinks. She tells me it’s because of her Japanese heritage and a missing enzyme that metabolizes alcohol. Thankfully, she rarely consumes this much, only when the occasion warrants the consequences. Like today. She clears her throat and speaks, her words slurring a little. “Okay. Listen up, Emma Hill.” Blinking, she swallows audibly, and I wondered if she’s on the verge of vomiting. I shift away, hopefully out of range. “Give me a minute,” she adds and swallows again. Danny’s last name was Matakoro, but I didn’t change my name when we married. Lately, I find myself questioning my decision because if I had taken his name, it would be like keeping a little part of him alive. Jane clears her throat, and, apparently no longer in danger of spewing, announces, “I hereby proclaim today shall henceforth be known as the official End-of-Emma’s-Wallowing Day.” She raises her glass in a toast. “Time to make a fresh start, move on, begin a new chapter…take the first step in the journey of the rest of your life.” I blink, trying to focus on the two images of my best friend wavering back and forth in front of me. When they finally merge into a single shape, I say, “Going for the world record for the greatest number of clichés in a single sentence?” She tosses her head. A curtain of silky black hair swings across her face and she flips it away, glaring at me. “Laugh all you want, but I’m serious. I mean, just look at you. You’re a mess.” Her gaze travels up and down my body. “When was the last time you had your hair cut?” I tuck an errant curl behind my ear. “Long hair doesn’t need the same attention a short bob like yours does.” “Maybe not, but it needs to be trimmed once in a while. And washed and conditioned. Pretty sure neither of those happens on a regular basis.” She yanks on the sleeve of my cardigan. “And this. You’ve been wearing this piece of crap sweater long enough. Let it go.” I wrap my arms protectively across my chest. “It’s Danny’s. I can’t just throw it away.” “Yes, you can, Emma. It’s time. Time to move on.” Tears slide down my cheeks, because how can I? I close my eyes, trying not to think about the last conversation Danny and I had. Well, no. Not a conversation, a fight. Memories strain against the restraints I’ve carefully set into place. My chest contracts with a crushing pain. A band tightens around my lungs, turning the simple act of breathing into a battle. My pulse thumps in my temple. I force myself to take a slow breath in through my nose and out through pursed lips like my counselor taught me. I will my muscles to relax. Jane misinterprets my reaction as simple grief, and her gaze fills with commiseration. “I’m not telling you to forget Danny. He’ll always be your first love. But you’re only thirty-two. Your life is an open expanse of sparkling blue water, spreading out before you in a sea of endless possibilities.” I swipe at my eyes and let out a snort of laughter. “Seriously, did you just read a book on clichés for everyday life?” She drops back to the couch beside me, takes my wine glass and sets it on the table, then reaches for my hands. “I love you, Sissy, and it’s breaking my heart to see you like this. You’re not living, you’re existing. That’s no way for anyone, let alone someone as brilliant and beautiful as you, to spend their life. And you know Danny wouldn’t want this for you.” She leans closer and lowers her voice theatrically as if she’s imparting the secret of eternal life. “I read somewhere chronic sadness wreaks havoc with your immune system, but a healthy serving of nice robust sex has the exact opposite effect.” Her eyebrows wiggle up and down suggestively. I bite my lip to stop myself from laughing at her maniacal expression. “And what, pray tell, is nice robust sex?” “You know, vigorous, plentiful … satisfying.” She narrows her eyes. “I’m telling you. You need to get laid.” I burst out laughing. “Not everyone is as obsessed with sex as you are, Jane. Some of us do just fine without it.” She blows out a puff of air through compressed lips. “Yeah, right.” Ignoring her disbelief, I say, “And I’m not just existing. I have a job, and, friends, and I do…things.” "What friends? As far as I know, I’m it, and lately, you won’t answer my texts or phone calls unless I freak out and yell at you. I’d also like to point out that this is the first time in three months you’ve been over here, and we both know if this wasn’t the day, you wouldn’t be here now.” I don’t bother to argue, because she’s only speaking the truth. “And what things do you do?” she continues. “The only time you ever go out is when I drag you kicking and screaming.” She grins. “And considering my size, that is an extraordinary accomplishment.” “I do not scream, or kick.” I try to sound offended but fail miserably. Jane can always make me laugh. “Not much, anyway.” “Come on, Emma, help me out here. There must be something that brings you joy. Something you’ve always wanted to do but never found the time, or courage to try.” I purse my lips, giving her my best contemplative expression. “Well, I’ve always wanted to bake an angel food cake from scratch,” I say, hoping to lighten the mood, which has become far too intense for my liking. Jane swats my arm. “You are the most infuriating woman I’ve ever met.” She laughs and pulls me to my feet. “Come on. I have an idea.” She drags me out through a pair of white-trimmed French doors to her balcony. Jane’s apartment is large for the west end of Vancouver where real estate is at a premium, but it’s pretty basic. Tiny kitchen, two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a monochromatic color scheme in shades of gray. The stone-colored walls, weathered hardwood floors, and smoky gray furniture are not my taste at all. I prefer colorful surroundings. Her balcony, though, that’s what makes her place spectacular. It’s massive, running the entire length of the building, and overlooks English Bay. When Jane’s elderly aunt was ready to sell two years ago, I had a chance to buy the apartment. I could have afforded it, thanks to Danny’s substantial insurance settlement, but I refuse to touch a penny of that. It feels too much like blood money. Not to mention that selling the house Danny and I scrimped and saved to buy would have felt like a betrayal. Jane, however, had jumped on the chance. Now, as my house slowly falls to pieces around me, I suspect she might have been the smart one. The heavy perfume of night-blooming jasmine engulfs us, cloyingly sweet and intense enough to make me sneeze. “Ugh. I can’t fathom how you actually enjoy this smell.” Five terra cotta containers filled with the flowering plants rest against the far railing. I’m surprised the stupid things are still blooming this late into the fall. Jane arches a single, delicately shaped eyebrow in an effortless movement. “Do not insult my precious babies.” I feign a gag. “Why did you drag me out here? It’s certainly not for me to enjoy this repulsive stench.” I scan the sky. “Not that I don’t enjoy your view.” The night is clear, the sky deepened to cobalt. A deep, rich color, so saturated you can almost taste it at the back of your tongue. The crisp breeze holds only the vaguest hint of the coming winter. In the distance, I can just make out the lights of container ships waiting in the harbor. A perfect October evening. Or at least that’s what Danny would’ve called it. He was all about the atmosphere. Candle-lit dinners, moonlit walks by the ocean, a shared bottle of wine with soft jazz playing in the background. A pain stabs in the center of my chest, and I force my thoughts back to the present, a much safer place to be. Emotionally, at least. Jane points a scarlet-tipped finger at the single, white star shining beside the full moon. “There. The first star of the night. There’s magic in that Emma, mark my words. Enough to make your dreams come true.” “Magic?” “Yes, magic.” Jane turns to me, eyes wide. “Powerful magic.” “Good lord, Jane. You really need to cut back on the Hallmark movies.” She slaps my hand. “Repeat after me.” “What?” She ignores me and continues, “Star Light. Star Bright. First star I see tonight. I wish I may, I wish I might. Have the wish I wish tonight.” I burst out laughing. “A children’s nursery rhyme?” She frowns. “Humor me, okay?” Her expression is so serious I relent and repeat the words back to her. “Okay, now make a wish. But you can’t wish for Danny back. That’s not how this works.” “Oh, do tell,” I say with a chuckle. “How exactly does this work?” She’s being ridiculous, but she’s so adorably earnest my heart fills with love for her. “Think about something that would bring you joy,” Jane says, “then wish for that.” The excitement in her voice makes me wonder if she believes in this wishing business. Either that or she’s drunker than I thought. She gives me a little shove with her shoulder. “Just do it.” God, if only it was that simple. One wish, and poof, all the misery would just disappear forever. What I wouldn’t give for that to happen. Guilt is an exhausting burden. While I’m probably one of the last people on earth who deserves to have a wish come true, there’s not much I wouldn’t do for Jane. So I say, “Fine,” and blow out a long-suffering breath. Closing my eyes, I empty my mind. Waiting for an idea to drift into my consciousness. The distant cry of a gull drifts up from the water, a boat engine revs as it speeds past, and waves crash as the boat’s wake hits the shore. Time unspools so slowly it’s as if I’m lost inside a dream. Like maybe a little of that magic Jane believes in has surrounded us. A tiny flicker of hope warms my heart. The wrinkled face of my Nana Jo appears behind my closed lids. The corners of her mouth lift in an odd smile and her faded azure eyes sparkle like she’s about to share a secret. The balcony tilts beneath my feet, forcing me to take a step to stop from toppling over. I open my eyes and grab the railing, then I speak the random word which has inexplicably appeared in my mind. “Nantucket.”
  7. Pitch- This women's fiction novel, based in the south, is told through both Penny's and Janie's perspectives, with flashback chapters to Penny's youth. It's a story about love, family and learning how to trust your heart. Three generations of strong-headed Hale women: · Daughter, Janie must choose between a fiancé and an old boyfriend · Mother, Nancy has a terrible secret · Grandmother, Penny can’t stop thinking of an old love Now all three women must face the music Chapter One Penny Judgmental. Power-hungry. Manipulative. That’s my daughter-in-law in a nutshell. Yet she broadcasted to me and everyone within earshot at the airport terminal, “Whoever this mystery guest is that Janie is bringing home from Italy better not act like all the other phony-acting Italian men I know.” “Nancy.” My son, Mac, drew out his wife’s name like the stroke of a paintbrush, long and slow until it just faded out. “What does that even mean? Phony-acting Italian? Do you know a lot of phony-acting Italian men?” Nancy glared at Mac. “Yes, as a matter of fact, I do. And I’m not fooled by their fake charm.” Mac chuckled and wrapped his arms around his uptight bride, hugging her back to his chest. “Well, she didn’t say where he was from. She just said she was bringing home a guy she met in Italy. I’m sure he’s American. Otherwise, why would he be coming to Atlanta?” “The Atlanta airport is a hub,” I said. “He could be catching a connecting flight.” Nancy gave me a look that said, Duh––I’m not stupid, I know all about the Atlanta airport. Mac nodded agreeably. “He probably­­ just needs a place to stay for the night. You know how accommodating Janie’s always been. I’m sure she’s just helping a friend. I doubt it’s anything serious.” Mac hugged his wife tighter and kissed the side of her head. Her face softened slightly. “Besides,” he said. “Janie wouldn’t have had time to get serious with anyone in Italy. She’s been backpacking all over Europe for two months. Italy was just her starting and ending points.” “I don’t know,” I said. “Venice is one of the most romantic places on this Earth. It wouldn’t take long to fall in love there.” I snickered and Nancy glared at me, her jaw clenching tight. “Penny.” She barked out my name like she was about to bite my head off, but then swallowed and looked away. Uncomfortable silence hung in the air, as was often the case when Nancy and I were together. She typically glared at me like she on the verge of saying something rude, and I typically bit the side of my cheek around her, so I didn’t spill what I really knew. She was a not-so-secret cheater on her husband, who’d crushed her daughter’s faith in love. Instead, we both focused on Mac, directing our conversations through him instead of at each other. “Does Janie start her new job next week?” Mac looked at Nancy for clarification. “Yes, the Tuesday after Labor Day,” she said gruffly. “And if she even thinks about pushing her start date back again, I’ll wring her neck. It was hard enough for me to convince them to wait until after this little adventure she planned.” Nancy shrugged her shoulders and her eyes fluttered shut. She heaved a heavy, self-righteous breath. “PR jobs are hard to come by. A job at this firm is a dream for most new college graduates.” Mac sighed and ran a hand through his thinning hair. “She’ll be there.” “I hope you’re right,” Nany quipped. “Because I sure can’t depend on her these days.” I rolled my eyes. “Here we go again.” I should have held my tongue. After seventy-seven years on this glorious planet, I should have learned how to be the bigger person and keep quiet when Nancy was in one of her moods. Lord knows, the last thing we needed was for Janie to arrive back home in Atlanta for the first time in months to find all of us fighting. That poor child deserved a happy homecoming for once, seeing as almost every visit home during her college years had ended in a knock-down-drag-out-mother-daughter brawl over the most innocuous events. Yet none of those fights ever addressed the true elephant in the room. The incident from Janie’s senior year of high school when she overheard her mother confessing to having an affair. She came to me instead of confronting her mother about it and we’ve all been dancing around this dirty secret ever since. Mac groaned audibly. “Mother, please,” he said through measured breaths. “Can we please just be nice to each other? At least for one day?” “I’m sorry, honey.” I said, patting Mac’s arm. “You’re right. Today is supposed to be a happy day.” A sad smile crossed his face springing instant tears to my eyes. I blinked them away and smiled. An unspoken pain passed between us. The fleeting reminder that in the six months since my husband had died, our grief had come to be measured by how many things we could look forward to instead of how many moments made us sad. Today was supposed to be one of those good days.
  8. Author Norah Vawter Title ANNA’S ENDLESSLY COLLAPSING STAR Genre Upmarket Women’s Fiction Comps The Queen’s Gambit meets astronomy. Complete at 80,000 words, ANNA’S ENDLESSLY COLLAPSING STAR is upmarket women’s fiction in the tradition of Little Fires Everywhere and Val Brelinsky’s The Girl Who Slept with God. Hook Line Anna thought this remote observatory in the Chilean desert was her escape, but it's actually her prison: to be free, she’s got to go home, stop pretending away her traumatic childhood, and stop hating her mom for saving her life. Pitch An astronomer in a remote observatory in the Chilean desert, Anna Rose Watson is on the verge of achieving her wildest dreams. But she’s spent her life running from her past. She’s an emotional ticking time bomb. And all the pain she’s repressed is about to catch up to her. When she was a child in New Orleans, Anna and her mother were shot. Her mom saved Anna’s life but ended up in a wheelchair—growing depressed and manipulative, living vicariously through Anna. Unable to cope with the pressure—and terrified she wasn’t worth her mom’s sacrifice—Anna ran out on her whole life, even her childhood love Willie. Now 4,561 miles from home, Anna peers into the distant past, studying ancient stars and working alongside a small, tight-knit group of scientists who live in close quarters. Her biggest problem: she’s dating her research partner, he likes her, and he wants to know the real Anna. But his questions make her feel like a freak. Like someone who doesn’t belong. When Anna discovers a 13 billion year-old supernova, it should be the best day of her life. But news of a mass shooting triggers painful memories—her past crashing into her present, just like her endlessly collapsing star, the supernova. Anna causes a public scene and starts missing work. Instead of seizing her big career opportunity, Anna’s spiraling out of control. Chile was supposed to be her escape, but it’s actually her prison. If Anna’s ever going to fulfill her scientific dreams, or feel like she belongs in the normal world, she has to stop running. It’s time to go home, stop hating her mom for saving her life and hating herself for living, and explore what might have been with Willie—so she can finally live in the present. Sample Joaquin let his long leg brush up against mine, as he always did when we sat close in the observatory during our long shifts. My research partner was tall and skinny, like a gawky teenager. We were manning one of our center’s four giant telescopes: tonight we peered into the distant reaches of Bode’s Galaxy. Studying objects so far away—we were actually looking back in time, into the distant past. After two years in Chile, living in this remote research center in the Atacama Desert, I finally felt cut off from everything that came before. Separated from my family and my past. Most of all, I was free of my mother. I’d whittled my life down to the stars. Of course, Joaquin broke the precious silence. He was incapable of stillness or self-control. “I read your paper,” he said. “Neutron stars?” He nodded, smiling that cocky grin. My handsome Joaquin: sharp and angular in a classically good-looking sort of way. Too good-looking for me to match him. His only flaw was his large nose, but it wasn’t much of a flaw. His interest was flattering, even sweet. But far too quickly he pivoted the conversation to his Christmas plans, and even more quickly to his confusion about my lack of plans. “You’re really staying here?” he asked. “But Lisi told me it will be empty, that everyone goes home—” “There’s always a few of us,” I said, running my hand through my short black hair, which was cropped in the same pixie cut I’d worn for over a decade. “You stayed in this place last year?” I nodded, not mentioning that I’d stayed at Paranal for every holiday since I arrived here. “But wouldn’t you rather go home?” Joaquin turned towards me. Somehow I’d piqued his interest and given him a reprieve from the boredom of telescope duty. “Where are you from again?” We’d been sleeping together for a couple months, since shortly after Joaquin transferred to Cerro Paranal. But I never talked about my past. To anybody. “I live here.” “But where is your home?” Joaquin was just making small talk. But I wanted to kick him in the shin. Sure, other people had casual chit chat about their hometowns, and funny stories about their childhoods. Other people might want to reminisce about their slacker friends in Santiago, who they were going to see over Christmas and who were making a “tall bike” for some reason I still didn’t understand. But my family, well, it wasn’t a family so much as an excuse to get cut by old chunks of glass, again and again, until there was nothing left of you. I refocused my attention on the monitors, wishing for work to distract both of us from Joaquin’s banter and his irritating, if possibly well-meaning curiosity. But nothing particularly interesting was going on in the sky tonight. Then—suddenly—something happened. It came out of nowhere. Like a hand reaching for us. A massive gamma ray burst appeared on one screen. Bio This novel has been longlisted for the Dzanc Books Prize for Fiction, and an excerpt was shortlisted for the RopeWalk Press Chapbook Prize (but not published in either case). I’ve published essays about my personal experience surviving gun violence and childhood trauma in The Washington Post and Memoir Magazine, as well as fiction in the Washington Writers Publishing House’s anthology This is What America Looks Like, The Nassau Review and Agave Magazine, among others. I have an M.F.A. in creative writing from George Mason University. I’m a freelance writer and the Local Authors Editor of online magazine DCTrending.com. I live with my husband and son in the D.C. suburbs, where I’m working on my next novel. www.norahvawter.com
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