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Algonkian Pre-event Narrative Enhancement Guide - Opening Hook

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Below are elements that all would-be narrative fiction artists should consider, regardless of genre - prior to fingers touching the keyboard, and while the fingers are tapping. These elements should be used in this forum for helpful critique as well as writer editorial purposes. 

Keep in mind, that aside from the notes which follow, a great story premise with a strong plot and excellent characters will keep reader eyes on the page most effectively. All else is extra but necessary recipe - cliché but true.

=> For those about to post a sample of their prose narrative, this forum will serve you best if you post a three or four page scene taken from your opening pages. Make certain to include dialogue, preferably at least 30 lines. Note at the top of your post where this scene takes place in the context of the plot line, and the purpose it serves, for example:

  • OPENING SCENE - Introduces antagonist, setting, tone, and a foreshadows the primary conflict.

=> However, if you wish to begin this process by posting a preliminary 500 words or so, feel free to do that. Again, it's preferable if these are your first five hundred. And please SINGLE SPACE. No one here is writing notes between the lines and no one on Earth reads double-spaced pages in published novels.



att.jpg Don't Neglect Energizing Dialogue - Nothing like great dialogue to create a page turner, especially if the characters are important to the story, and to the reader. Make it crisp, snappy, and relevant. When in doubt, dose with conflict. 

att.jpg Utilization of Artful Hyperbole in Dialogue or Interior Monologue - Surreal descriptions, provocative statements, e.g., suggestion that an unusual or dangerous event might occur; and what about objects that manifest a fearful or mysterious quality? 

"The tips of her fingers are a funny orange, like the tip of a soldering iron."

"You are at a nightclub talking to a woman with a lightning bolt on her nose."

"A homeless child with crazy green eyes was threatening an old woman on the subway."

"It's even worse than you expected."

att.jpg Matters of Scenes and Sets - Have you chosen in such a manner that verve and uniqueness are potentials by default? Are they capable of producing provocative or interesting imagery? Consider a single best setting for the most energetic scene.


att.jpg Quality of Description - Nuances and Shimmers. What will be the most vital, provocative, or unique image in any given scene? Imagine it. Be aggressive. Consider proper similes and metaphors. Also, what is the best way to render vivid descriptions, whether static or dynamic? This an art form that many fiction writers fail to master. Again, keep in mind your choice of scene and set in the first place. Articles to read:

Experiments in High Impact Narrative  /  A Great Damp Loaf of Description  /  Prose Narrative Enhancer Tool

att.jpg Quality of Narrative in General

att.jpg Ruminations and Imaginings - Does the point-of-view character abstract, comment, muse, daydream? And btw, what are the TRIGGERS for these states of mind? Allow the POV character to ask questions of themselves, to doubt, to rationalize. Is the character also flashbacking to the past, fantasizing a scenario that involves them, perhaps in the future? A sexual fantasy? A fantasy of revenge, a memory of a past love, a dream world? The "setting" of the mind can often inject verve on the page if the scene set is a bit quiet.

att.jpg The Power of Event - Is there a defining or powerful event taking place, one capable of having impact on all present? Has a building collapsed and blocked traffic? Is a fight or argument taking place nearby? A parade, a protest? Car accident? What makes sense for your time and place?

att.jpg Minor Complications - Miscellaneous things that trip and confound. The immediate energy of a good minor complication cannot be overstated when it comes to overall narrative verve.

att.jpg Protagonist Sympathy Factors in the Hook - The below is a tangent to this topic, but an important tangent. Why? Because the elements above must be devoted, in part, to the early development of the protagonist. If you're going to be posting narrative samples from the beginning of the novel (which is most beneficial) then you must take this issue into consideration.


Novel Writing on Edge is a time-tested and trusted source for all genres on the topics of novel writing, development, editing, and publishing.

Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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For years I repeatedly told Natasha I would never return. When it comes to minding my own business, I should trust my feminine intuition. It is always better than my impulsive reactions.

So when she called me and sheepishly reminded me I owed her a favor, pleaded for my help, and asked if I would please come back to Centrel City, I impulsively told her I would be there in 48 hours. I was driving in her direction anyway, with a load of flowers scheduled for delivery in Springfield, Illinois, just an hour South.

My name is J.B. Bancroft. I am a transportation specialist. In other words, I am a truck driver.

After the flowers were unloaded at the warehouse Wednesday, I pulled the empty reefer trailer north to the riverside of Centrel City. I turned into Twinkler Trucking's parking lot.

Before I crawled into the bunk behind the passenger seat of my cab, I wiggled out of my boots and jeans and reached over to lock the outside door, but the handle wasn't there.

I yelled, "What the Hell!" and grabbed my thumper from the floor, a piece of wood like a billy club I use to check tire inflation. Before I could say anything more or close the door, the thug reached into the bunk and pulled me out. I rolled into a ball and landed in a lump. The tire thumper ended up on the gravel in front of me. He grabbed it, and it came down on my head. . . . . .

I woke up in my trailer. When I was moving, I wasn't shivering, and my teeth weren't chattering. But, when I sat down to rest on the pallet, I couldn't even hear myself think over the noise of my teeth. I sat down, pulled my arms under my shirt, and drew my legs up tight to my core; I could rest for a second.

I wasn't cold. Was my mind playing tricks on me? There was a blanket around me. I could tell there was a light on. Who were the voices? I felt dizzy and thirsty.

I realized I was in bed. The conversation didn't seem threatening. Did I hear a female voice? I could make out two very distinct male voices. I couldn't hear what they were saying. I drifted back to sleep; this time, I felt safe.

I was awake again but kept my eyes tightly closed. There were only two voices now, a female and a male voice.

I recognized Natasha's soft, reassuring voice saying, "Jillian, Jillian, J.B., you're safe. It's going to be OK!" The male voice, sounding confidently professional, said as he placed his hand on my forehead, "I was hoping you would come back to Centrel City someday, and we could . . . Before I opened my eyes, I knew his voice. I opened one eye; Jon T. Milton lifted my hand and cupped it between his two strong hands with a gentle squeeze. "J.B. There you are!"

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Opening Scene-Introduces protagonist, isolated setting, and foreshadows her current situation and mental state. 

Benson Walker stood behind Shelby Garrett talking, prodding her on like he always did when one of her characters was struggling and refusing to change, though she knew he wasn’t really there. He was dead and had been for three years, ever since she’d killed him off in novel number three. She had written ten novels, and the third one was titled, The Dead Can’t Win at Scrabble. She knew that was true because Benson never beat her when they played.

All ten of Shelby’s novels were printed and bound in spiral notebooks with shiny gloss covers; quality work since 1982. That was what Harrison Pack and Print bragged, and it was true—at least in her experiences with their company. She was happy with their work and kept going back each time she finished a manuscript. Once she typed the last word, she waited a few days and then completed two edits. And when she couldn’t get the idea for the next novel out of her head, she stuffed the bound manuscript into the cabinet and began her next novel.

“Trudy will find her way soon enough,” Benson said to Shelby.

“She won’t. I’ve given her nothing but grief and sorrow, and absolutely no lifelines.”

“Stop whining. She’ll figure it out,” he said. “All of us have, given enough time.”

“No. I’ve made it too difficult for her to crawl out of the trauma and despair. Three hundred pages of hell is what I’ve given her. Maybe it was that dreadful boyfriend. He was too much for her and now she’s in too deep,” Shelby said, waving Benson off. She arched her back, feeling the ache, and knew without Benson reminding her that sitting at the keyboard for nine straight hours didn’t do an old woman any good. If she’d at least gone to the garden today and done something useful like pulling a few weeds around the rose bushes or maybe watering the black-eyed susans, it would look like she cared some.

Reading her mind like he always did, Benson asked, “How about a short trip to the garden? Maybe stand at the edge and have a simple look. That’s doable, don’t you think?” The older character’s voice crept into her ear like a sad song.

“No,” she said quickly. “Let me be.”

Shelby stood, content in knowing that Benson was gone, for now. But she knew he’d be back pecking in her ear, always nagging, sticking his nose where it didn’t belong, telling her to sleep or eat or water the dying roses out back that Philip planted for her twenty years ago. My, he had been a handsome thing. And very kissable. Those kinds of perks were important to women in long term relationships. But she wouldn’t think about Phil right now or those angry roses because that might cause the wind to rush through her chest and create the storm. She didn’t want to deal with any of that today. Besides, it would be dark soon and she hadn’t eaten all day.

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Opening scene. Introduces protagonist and foil character, sets tone and establishes a key setting, foreshadows future conflict threads


Sometimes the people you love more than life itself can be the very same people you hate the most. It’s an unfortunate truth, but it is what it is.

Or maybe that’s not normal. Maybe it’s just me.

I watched as Nick came toward me on the balcony with a frozen margarita in each hand, his handsome face open and earnest, like a hopeful puppy. Always so anxious to please. I smiled at him from behind my dark sunglasses. 

Inside, I was burning. 

Nick handed me a drink and dragged a wooden lounge chair across the deck until it was just the slightest bit too close to the one I was sitting in. He fell into it with a sigh and held his glass out toward me. I tapped it automatically, the beachy plasticware colliding with a dull, unsatisfying plink

“Happy moving day, gorgeous.”

“Mmm.” The small sound was all the agreement I could muster. 

Off in the distance over the sparkling Nantucket Sound, a flock of seagulls was fighting over something large and dead floating in the water. I sat up a little taller in my chair so that I could get a better look. 

“I haven’t heard from the movers since around eight this morning. They’ll probably just call us when the job is done, you think?”

I didn’t say anything.

Nick leaned back in his chair and took a small sip of his drink. “Anyway. I’m sure they’ve got it handled. They’re professionals.”

I extended my legs out in front of me, lean and tan after a full Cape Cod summer. This was by far the longest stretch of time we had spent here in the six years since we’d bought our beach house in Hyannis--which, come to think of it, had also been something that Nick had gone ahead with without my approval. If I’d had more of a say we would have ended up with a quaint little cottage in Chatham, or maybe something a bit more luxurious on Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard. But my husband wanted a house in Hyannis, and Nick Aldrich always gets what he wants.

It actually made perfect sense. Everyone who owned a summer home in this flashy tourist-trap was either a sentimental sap overly nostalgic for their childhood family vacations, a rabid Kennedy groupie, or new money. My husband fit neatly into all of those categories.

Still, over the years I’d grown to love our little bungalow on the Sound. I never thought that I could grow tired of the view here, the slow, lazy days spent half in and half out of the water, a drink in one hand, a book in the other, covered from head to toe in sand and salt. But I had grown tired of it. I was tired and bored. I wanted to go back to Boston, to our solid old brownstone near the Common. 

I wanted to go home. But home was not an option anymore.

“Where are the kids?” I asked, keeping my voice casual.

“I put them down for a nap.” Nick held his sweating margarita glass against the side of his neck. “They were tired. They got some sun at the beach this morning. Nothing to worry about.” He shot a quick sideways glance in my direction. I pretended not to notice. 

“I’m not worried, Nick. I’m just feeling a little unsettled right now.”

Could he blame me? We were moving away from the city where I’d spent my entire life out into the middle of nowhere, to some giant old house that I’d never even seen. My heart skipped a beat, thinking about it. “You could have at least waited for me to see the place before making an offer on it.”

“Jules, I don’t want to talk about this again. I said I was sorry.” My husband’s body went rigid in the chair next to me. He closed his eyes and exhaled slowly, forcing his muscles back into a relaxed posture. “Anyway, you’re going to love it. The house is awesome. And seriously? I never thought I’d hear Julia Aldrich call Harlow ‘the middle of nowhere.’ In fact, I seem to recall a long weekend away during which a certain someone couldn’t stop talking about how much she would love to live there. Something about how the town was ‘pure magic’ and ‘tragically haunted’ and ‘the perfect place to write the perfect story.’ Do you remember that?” 

I did, kind of. How supremely annoying of him to bring it up. It was just like Nick to remember every little thing I’ve ever said, to squirrel each word away for safekeeping in case an opportunity to use them against me happened to present itself. I really had to work on choosing my words more carefully. I took a deep breath and gave it a try: “Just because it’s the town where Emily Peal lived doesn’t mean it’s not the middle of fucking nowhere, Nick.”

“Okay, jeeze. Sorry.” 

The seagulls were battling over bits of carcass in midair, dropping and catching dark, rubbery-looking shreds of meat. The dead thing was probably a seal, or a porpoise. Maybe even a small whale. I wondered if there had been any great white sightings in the Sound recently. They were practically swarming off the coast of Chatham and Orleans this late in the season, but to my knowledge a shark sighting in our area was pretty rare. Still, If I made sure not to look away for even a second, I might see something happen out there that was actually worth seeing. I squinted my eyes against the sun, trying to focus on the actions of a single gull in the teeming, writhing mass.

“I just hate seeing you stressed, Jules. I know you’re going to love it when we’re all settled in.” Once Nick got going, it was hard for him to stop. “When that house came up in Harlow, it was a no-brainer. Beautiful country, fresh air, the famous hometown of your favorite writer. It’s the perfect place for the kids to grow up. And you’ll be so inspired, you won’t be able to stop yourself from writing again. It’s going to be amazing, love. I promise.” 

“Nick,” I said. “It’s fine. Really. It’ll be great.”

“Great. Good. I’m so happy to hear you say that.” He flashed me a relieved smile, clearly choosing to believe that my words were genuine.

When he saw the look on my face, the smile faded.

“You know that I’m doing this for you, right?” Nick asked gently. “I would never do anything to hurt you, Julia.”

Something stirred in the water and the birds took flight in one body, lifting up into the air like a cloud. After that, nothing. How disappointing.

The sunlight glittering on the Sound was getting to be too much for my eyes to handle. I closed them and leaned my head against the chair, tasting the salt from the sea in the back of my throat. 

Nick was finally quiet. Feeling guilty, maybe. I hoped he was. What he’d said wasn’t exactly true, and we both knew it. 

He didn’t make the decision to move our family to Harlow for me.

He did it because of me. 

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Part III assignment:

Performance tells Carol’s story from childhood to middle age. She’s always been an intense, determined woman who longed to be famous from her earliest memories. She battles humble beginnings, a dysfunctional family and her own self doubting demons to become great.

This dialog excerpt is a flashback to age 12. It captures our protagonist childhood personality and her relationship to her dysfunctional family. The scene is Christmas shopping alone in 1964.


Carol finished most of her shopping and still had $1.50 left. Both doors of Maxon’s Music store stood wide open. Christmas music blared from the strategically located self-playing organ. Carol entered the music store and was greeted warmly by Mr. Olson. 

“Merry Christmas!” he shouted a little too loudly. Carol could smell a peculiar odor on his breath but didn’t yet recognize it yet as cheap liquor. Carol’s eyes searched the rack of 45s displayed along the back wall. She had never purchased a record before. Her father had dozens of broken record players in his junk collection. She was not sure if any of them worked, but she already decided if she had any money left when she finished Christmas shopping, she would buy her first very own record. She knew it had to be, "I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” by the Beatles. Yes, this was the day.

Handing Mr. Olson her prize purchase and a one-dollar bill, she smiled at the thought of being able to tell her best friend, Sandy, all about it when she got home.

“Do you have a 45 rpm adapter for your record player?” Mr. Olson asked.

 “I, I don’t know,” Carol stammered.

“Well, it’s only five cents for one of these little wheelie things to snap in the middle of your record, just in case you don’t have a real stereo adapter for converting 45s to LP’s.” Mr. Olson explained. “Some kids call them spiders,” he added.

“Please, I’ll take a green one, my favorite color.” Carol added.

“Green, it will be then, just like you pretty eyes,” Mr. Olson whispered. Carol took a step back and shivered. His compliment felt creepy. He reached into a large glass candy jar near the cash register and pulled out a neon green disk. Carol clutched all of her bags to her chest and hurried out the door. She ran up the hill to the waiting family station wagon. It was nearly dark and everyone in the car was tired and hungry.

“Where were you?” her mother demanded. “We’ve been waiting for you for hours.”

“Yeah, we’re starving!” her youngest sister chimed in.

“I saw her just standing and staring at reflection in a store window,” berated her older sister.

“I was not. For your big fat information, I was trying to pick out presents for each of you,” Carol cried in defense. “You are all mean and I’m giving every one of these gifts I just bought for you guys to the poor instead.”

“Now Carol,” her mother interrupted. “The Bible says, ‘It is better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.’  (*Mark Twain)

There she goes again, Carol thought. Mom and her messed up quotes. Carol clamped her mouth tightly shut and stared out the opposite window, ignoring the rest of their relentless interrogations.  


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OPENING SCENE - Introduces protagonist, perceived antagonists, secondary characters, setting, core wound, and initial primary conflict.


March 1420

My Lady Mother’s words spur me around on my heels. Grabbing my maiden’s arm, I pull us both back from the doorway so they can see us not.

“He became their king as soon as Robert was dead, right after we put James in the Tower.”

“Before. Robert was dead before that; he never knew of our capture. He was already weak, and he died after thinking he’d sent James to France. He couldn't keep either of his heirs safe.” Are they speaking of the Scottish King? 

“Regardless of all that, the reason he isn’t running his own country is because we’ve held him; in one castle or another. They don’t want him returned. He’s of age now, so if he goes back to Scotland, they’ll lose their power. And, like I said a moment ago, they will lose their succession placement to the throne too if he takes a queen and has heirs. We should be using this."

“I’m not convinced. We have been able to dictate what he knows and what he does for fourteen years. My brother gave him the same elite English education as any of us. He’s made the man loyal to England. I still believe he knew what he was doing by keeping him under our control here."

“By keeping an impotent King of Scotland? Are you serious, Henry? What we need is an ally working for us within Scotland. Christ! After Rouen, the younger King Henry is doing the same as your brother, treating him as a dear subject he can manage. He knows we need an alliance with the Scots to prevent them allowing the French to get to us through the border up by Joan and me, but like his father he too now believes keeping him in England gives more control over him.”  I hadn’t realized my aunt and uncle had arrived from Durham already.

“All right Ralph. You’re correct, but the Duke of Albany hasn’t attempted any genuine negotiations for his return. The next move must come from us. Margaret is on to something. We can up the bargaining by wedding the man with one of our own, he’s going to need a queen anyway. He’s in his twenties now, and like Henry said, he’s been educated and raised as an Englishman. I also hear he is quite charming. Other realms must be considering this too. It seems befitting he return to Scotland, and with a high-born, well-groomed English bride. Joan is all of that and indisputably beautiful. Her being a Beaufort helps all of us.”

“The King isn’t going to like it. But I do now agree.”

“Then Henry, you’re the Bishop of Winchester. Convince your nephew otherwise.”


"I may just as well say I am Queen of Hell itself!" The shriek escapes from me while I march heavy-footed towards my private chambers. Turning the hall corner, I hurry through a stone archway of the castle. Margery and I reach the door to my chambers with me storming in ahead of her. My frustrations reach a new level when the soft soles of my poulaine's refuse to match my fury, and my temper explodes. "I won't do it! Absolutely not!"

My maidens exchange low glances, and Eleanor quickly removes Corfe from my arms and places him onto the bed for his own safety. It is not the first time they've witnessed my wrath, so they take their roles as protector and friend. Margery clears her throat; she always does when she is about to speak of something uncomfortable. "At least you would be a queen, My Lady." The truth of those words loudly echoes, showing its mockery to my poulaines.

"Yes.” I say, watching Eleanor as she stares at me. Why is she still here? "Eleanor, you may leave us now." Spoken more curtly than I intend, but she knows better. She at least should. Her eyes are as one with the tapestry-covered floors, and she scurries out the door. The guard quickly shuts it behind both. 

I grab one of the bed's posters and sit down alongside Corfe. "Margery, of course I realize I would be a queen. And my family will have achieved their ambitious goals. But you heard them too! You know that is not where my frustration lies."

I begin to calm and gather my little dog back with one arm and walk to where she is standing and place my empty hand onto hers. "You have known since I was a young girl how I've dreamt of ruling high and marrying for love."

Always loyal, she eyes the embroidery resting on the stool that she had been working on earlier, and I hear her take in a breath of air as she ponders her words of advice. "Can it not be both, My Lady?"

She means well, I know she does. But how can I love a Scot, let alone rule in Scotland? It is utterly foolish that My Lady Mother would breed me so highly only to have me to live in such a vulgar place. "Fetch paper and something with which to write." She removes my hand and I use it to caress Corfe as she prepares herself at my writing desk and looks to me for further instruction. "Send a courier immediately delivering a message to Dowager Queen Johanna letting her know we will be arriving at her castle tomorrow evening. Leeds. She was moved there from Pevensey last month."

Clarifying, she asks, "tomorrow, My Lady?"

"Yes, yes.” I answer impatiently. After the conversation I have just overheard, there is no time to waste. “I need to speak with her before Uncle Henry makes any attempts to.” She stops writing.

"About your marrying King James?" And there it is. The words said aloud.

I look right at her. “I have maintained a positive relationship with her from her days at Court. But since she was imprisoned a few months ago, I am concerned my uncle may contrive a release plan with her in exchange for help convincing the king of a betrothal for the Scottish king and me.”

I feel content with the decisions I am making. “If what you say is true Margery, that I could marry both for love and high rule, the former queen would understand better than most. After the message is finished, prepare a carriage to take us to Leeds Castle following morning Mass."

Retrieving my seal, she replies. "Yes, My Lady."

April 1, 1420

It will be hours in this carriage before we arrive at Leeds Castle. I need to spend the time organizing my thoughts. But what are those thoughts? What exactly is it I’m expecting from her? I want to know what I should do. Do? I have no say in any of this. Or do I?  I must calm. Have I learned nothing from my years of grooming? Certainly, to show control of my own emotions. Oh, blessed Virgin, please help me untangle this mess inside of my head.

Johanna will properly guide me. She may only be my aunt through marriage, but she knows the life of a high-born lady leaving her homeland to rule as Queen in another. Had she not chosen to stay in England following King Henry's demise? Regrettably now perhaps, being his son's prisoner. Usually, I would refer to My Lady Mother or Aunt Joan for guidance, but by playing me as a pawn in this matter of which I sooo oppose, the dowager queen holds the only advice I value.

My thoughts shake loose as our carriage slightly tumbles. "Are we in danger of spilling over?" These anxious thoughts have tumbled over aloud to my coachman.

"We are quite secure, My Lady. Try to rest." His words echo loudly enough that I am certain my retinue in both carriages now knows of my anxiousness. So, let them know. They will understand the urgency of my arrival now. Only my favorite lady companion, Margery, and I are in this carriage. I peer out the pinkish, velvet-lined curtain of my window to ensure the second carriage with Eleanor and more servants is still following. This gives me some comfort.

I bring my head back inside and fall into a dreamy state of thought. I begin wondering how much of our destiny gets altered by our parents’ choices. We are born into our circumstances, of course, but what becomes of us the result of choices. Is it not? Their choices for a while. A good while. They know what is best for our lives. This is care. This is love. Perhaps we can simply disguise this smothering of decisions over our lives as God's will through our earthly fathers. Their intentions are mostly selfless. I suppose. I don't know if soulful thought is given to their intentions at all though, really. It is innate to want the best for ourselves. Is it natural for that to come before what is best for our family's, especially if it is not even realized? Regardless, it begins. In my case, it was literally from the moment My Lady Mother's kirtle lace required loosening. Decisions that would decide the trajectory of my life had begun.

She nudges me awake. "Are you all right, My Lady?" The pillow I had allowed my head to lie against is forced to drop onto the carriage floor when I sit up.

"And why would I not?" I reply, perturbed by the intrusion. I retrieve the pillow and dust it off with my hands.

"Pardon," is all she says.

I’m not usually so peevish as I've been showing of recent. Looking to her, I smile finally.  "It is nothing. Actually, I was starting to allow memories of when we moved to Dorset before I knew you.”


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The symbols on the page danced in rows like broken snowflakes drawn in black ink, or tumbled musical notes. As Ellie Whitaker looked, they seemed to tremble as if trying to turn and reveal more. She found herself holding her breath in anticipation. It was happening again. Ellie shook her head clear and sat back.

She would seem to be doing something perfectly ordinary: sitting at her desk in the Antiquities Archive at Manhattan University, with a cup of coffee from the bodega steaming to the right of her putty-colored keyboard with faded letters on its keys. And it seemed like an ordinary afternoon. The sounds of sirens wailed in the distance, muffled by the walls of the old brownstone where the Archive was housed. It was like home to Ellie. The quiet buzzing of dimmed LED lights and the slightly dusty smell of the collection created the feeling that she was in a place of secrets and mystery. And the only person she had to deal with on a daily basis was her boss and mentor, Professor Garrett Dockery, who was working quietly behind his office door, across the room from her cubicle.

But it was not an ordinary afternoon at all. Ellie’s mind sparked with excitement and a touch of fear as she gazed again at the page of symbols. The completed shapes swam and turned in her mind’s eye, and as she floated among them, lightly touching them, they formed living words, and it was as if she herself were in some stony place, a stone building with snow falling outside the open door, speaking these words:

…and the sons of the God King were called The Great Ones – The Dagons – and each bore a dark-stoned ring made for hunting on the paths of shadow…

Again she pulled herself out of the vision. Ellie’s very blood seemed to tingle. Even the burn scar on the back of her neck and along her right arm stung strangely. She was accustomed to visualizing when she translated, and she was used to the thrill of discovery. But this was like nothing she had done – or felt – before.

This was the second such page she had translated in this way. But why did the symbols seem to come alive as she gazed at them? Where had they come from? Her boss had only given her this single sheet of paper with these symbols on it without any explanation.

Ellie recalled having seen something like this before -- in an old article, she thought. She turned her attention to the monitor on her desk – a bulky thing that was practically an antique itself – and typed in a search for articles with terms describing the symbols – snowflake, mandala, puzzle piece – until she found what she was looking for: images of the very same symbols, copied from an ancient book called the Altai Manuscript.

There were a few articles, a handful, dated from the late the 1800s through the 1920s. She sorted them in chronological order:

Puzzling Manuscript Found in Ruins of Buddhist Monastery Near Altai Mountains

The Impenetrable Altai Manuscript: Theories and Questions

After a Decade of Study, the Altai Manuscript Continues to Confound Scholars

Altai Manuscript Declared a Hoax

Ellie remembered hearing about this. The discovery of this book had been a sensation, but after years of effort, the greatest minds in linguistics had not been able to understand the Altai Manuscript, so they decided it must be gibberish, a fake created by a fame-hungry explorer.

Except that it wasn’t. Ellie had just translated part of it. She zoomed in on the images on her screen. As she studied them, her mouth went dry and her heart quickened. From what she could see, there was no question: many of the symbols were the very same.

Across the room, the door to her boss' office was ajar. Ellie heard Garrett gathering up his keys as he prepared to leave for the day.

“Garrett!” she called. It took some effort to keep her voice from quavering, “Do you have a minute?”

Garrett emerged from his office. “Always,” he said. He slid the shoulder strap of his leather briefcase off his lanky frame, dropping the bag on the chair beside his office door.

Ellie sat back as Garrett leaned over her shoulder to see the computer screen. As he looked at the screen, he brushed back the lock of straight sandy brown hair that fell across his forehead. “I remember hearing about this,” he laughed. “So you’ve gone down an antiquities rabbit hole!”

Ellie quietly lifted the paper from her desk and handed it to him. Garrett glanced at her briefly with a puzzled expression, lifted the page, scanned it carefully, then gazed again at the screen. His light brows drew together and his mobile mouth opened slightly in surprise. He pulled up a chair next to Ellie’s desk and placed the paper back down.

“I had no idea,” he said. “I thought these symbols were just a kind of puzzle…” His blue eyes pinned her gaze. “Do you know what you’ve done? Do you know what this means?”

It was too much to even think about the implications, so Ellie simply said, “Literally -- it means the God-king had five sons…” Garret steepled his fingers under his chin and watched her.  “… and they all had these dark stone rings for hunting on paths of shadow...”

Garrett’s smile vanished and he seemed to go pale for a moment. “I’m sorry, could you repeat that?”

“They each had a ring.” Ellie pointed to the corresponding characters on the page. “There were five sons of this God-king. And they each had one of these rings.”

Garrett looked down, tapping his paired index fingers against his forehead a few times. Beyond the walls of the building, a siren wailed and faded away.

Garrett finally lifted his head and said, “But of course you know I wasn’t asking about the translation, Ellie. You know what I meant: do you understand the importance of what you’ve done?”

Ellie knew. But how was she supposed to talk about it? Certainly she worked for a top research university – but she was just an entry level librarian/administrative assistant who’d gotten her BA one class at a time. Translating was a personal passion, not a career.

“You’ve cracked a code no linguist in generations has been able to understand.” Garrett kept trying to meet her eyes, but she kept them focused on her own hands, one covering the other on her desk.

“I understand that,” she said. But things like this weren’t supposed to happen to her.

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Opening Scene:  Introduces protagonists, setting, tone, and foreshadows the primary conflict

Chapter One – The Messenger

Aidan understood mourning.  And now today, Aidan feared he would again lie to rest someone who was not yet supposed to die.

Out of the highlands beyond the head of Loch Lomond, Aidan had traveled south through Northumberland, across the River Tyne and into the familiar heather moorlands of the upland plateau.  Following a line of drooping birch trees around a bend, Aidan had crested a small hill when he saw the body lying in the road.

Aidan coaxed his long-legged Friesian to a gentle trot.  As he approached, the sinking sun cast long cool shadows across his path, and he marveled at the scattered patches of snow nestled along the sides of the road, and their refusal to melt under the bright skies of early spring.  Upon reaching the body, he dismounted, recognizing at once the uniform of a king’s courier.  Removing his hood, Aidan bent down on one knee and shook the fallen messenger gently, “Sir, are you hurt?  Can I help?”

The old man opened his eyes and muttered, “Water.”

Aidan fetched the goatskin off his horse and put it to the man’s lips.  “What happened?”

The courier took a sip of water, coughed, sputtered blood, mumbled “the dispatch,” and slipped away into death.

Aidan searched the courier’s satchel.  It was empty.  Blood oozed from under the courier’s midsection.  Taking off his gauntlets, Aidan rolled the courier toward him, pulled the blood-soaked shirt away from his back and found the fatal wound.  Tracing the length, depth and angle of the wound with his fingers, Aidan was convinced the old man never saw the blow.  Recalling the secret his father had taught him, that sometimes a king’s courier plants a decoy in the satchel and carries the real message in a pouch tied about the neck, Aidan ripped open the man’s shirt.  No pouch.  He looked closer.  A raw abrasion cut across the right side of the courier’s neck.

Aidan searched the courier’s clothes for any means of identification or origin or destination.  Nothing.  There was nothing, save a short dagger and its bulbous pommel encasing a likeness of the king’s seal, still sheathed in its scabbard.  Aidan tucked the knife into a loop woven around his narrow sword belt to hang off his right hip, next to his own fine-pointed and thin-bladed dagger.

Aidan washed the dried blood from his hands and tenderly closed the courier’s eyes.  He stood over the courier, said a short prayer, and gestured the sign of the cross.  Retrieving the blanket furled behind his saddle, Aidan folded the courier’s arms, resting the old man’s callous palms across his heart, and then draped the blanket over the body.  He grabbed the empty satchel, slung it over his horse, and secured it to the rear of his saddle.  The only thing left to do was to bury the man.

Scanning the nearby terrain for the most suitable spot for a grave, Aidan wondered about the life of the old man.  He lamented the fact he would never hear the old man tell of his great adventures sitting around the open fire and sharing a drink, or that he would never have the opportunity to tell the old man how much he admired his dedication to duty, yielding his life in the king’s service.  Selecting a patch of ground beneath a shady oak, Aidan started to dig, speculating on the procession of loved ones who would mourn for the courier and come to this remote place to say, “God be with ye.”

The sun had disappeared behind a sky turned pitch-dark by the time he completed marking the courier’s grave with a mound of gathered stones.  He led his black Netherlands war-horse, Samson, so named because of the thick flowing mane and tail, to the other side of the road, up over a slight rise, and down to a small clearing to bed down for the night.


            Under the same dark sky, a bearded man tossed the remnants from his cup into the ashes, climbed into the saddle, and rode south.


“I’ll race you to the yearning tree,” shouted Lady Rhiannon from over her shoulder, already whipping her horse into a gallop.  Reaching full stride, she glanced back to see Sir Geoffrey’s mount lunge forward to take chase.  The race was on.

Rhiannon knew her mare had the speed to outrun Geoffrey in a sprint, but she needed to stay close and within striking distance until they reached the meadow.  The yearning tree grew at the far side of the meadow down by the lake, a massive solitary oak with arching limbs and broad-bladed leaves that provided shade from the sweltering heat, and shelter during the seasonal rains.  She had passed many an afternoon under that tree, dreaming about life and love.

Once she thought she was in love.  But that bliss had vanished in a senseless act of selfish courage.  Even so, on occasion, she would ride to the ancient oak to stroke the pair of initials hidden on the underside of a great bough carved during a bygone summer’s eve.

Riding helped Rhiannon forget.  She would never be as skilled or as strong as the men in arms, but she could ride.  Rhiannon darted around and between two trees heading for the edge of the woods.  As she cut through the trees, a branch swung at Rhiannon’s face threatening to unseat her.  She managed to deflect it with her arm but paid for the encounter with a nasty scratch and a thin trail of blood.

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  • OPENING SCENE - Introduces antagonist, setting, tone, and a foreshadows the primary conflict.

I’ve gone over it thousands of times. I was neglected and abandoned along with my six siblings. The emotional imprint from absence of mothering is permanent. It is a scar and no matter how it fades or is explained away, when it is imperceptible and only the tiniest dot unseen by the human eye, it is there. And I will feel it forever.

Christmas Day, 1965. After the mayhem of gift opening and shuffling through heaps of wrapping paper, we learned from our father that my six siblings and I were to get dressed and head out of the house to visit with our maternal grandmother. Kids! Get dressed like I told you over an hour ago. Larry! If I hear one more of those damned Beatles songs instead of the sound of your feet marching down the stairs, well, you don’t wanna know, ok?  You are supposed to be there at noon. That’s now for Chrissake. I’ll have dinner ready by five. 

It had been a long time since we went to Grandma’s, possibly a year. We weren’t allowed to since Mom left. We had written letters to her at unfamiliar addresses provided by Grandma over the last two years. And now she was just a couple of blocks away. We picked up our pace to defy the bitter cold and its power over us. We marched, huddled together through the fresh snow swirling and mingling with the soot from the thousands of furnaces burning in this coal mining town.

I thought about when we walked out of the house. Dad was sitting at the kitchen table smoking his Pall Malls and shaking his foot as he always did when he was thinking. Turning the corner on to Grandma’s street, I couldn’t help thinking about Dad and that the sooner we got this visit over, the sooner we would be back and getting the table ready for probably one of his big pasta dinners, hopefully his meatballs soaked in the darkest red sauce and pasta. Maybe some garlic bread.

We arrived at the old Victorian house with a flurry. Grandma pulled us in the house with more verve than I’d seen in her for a long time. Off came our coats and gloves. She smoothed down my dress and straightened my eyeglasses for me. Now, that’s better, Val honey. You wanna look nice today don’t you?. Don’t just stand there, now. Get in the kitchen and see everyone. But I didn’t want to see everyone. I wanted to sit in the corner in Grandpap’s big chair and wait til we would head back home to Dad. 

That's where I stayed, wishing I had brought my Christmas doll with me. The mysterious “creature” that had bounded in and out of our lives was approaching. Her beauty never did made me feel happy. In fact, it had the opposite effect. Other mothers weren’t like her. Her beauty was formal, not soft and affectionate. She had become a stranger to me. Dad had begun warning me about the hazards of getting in a car with my own mother which I hadn't really thought much about until today.

I stared down at my thin white socks and hand-me-down black patent leather shoes. The "creature’s" long legs stood in front of me. Her shoes had a new bought shine and her hosiery was sheer and silky. When I looked upwards I saw that her hair seemed to match the dark brown flecks in her wool jacket and matching skirt. There was a Christmas pin on the collar with a red that matched her lipstick. I noticed a man’s pressed slacks and clean brown shoes before me. He was smiling down at me. Mom touched my arm. “This is Jeffrey.  He’s been wanting to meet you”. His eyes were a soft blue and his face seemed calm but confident. In a deep and melodious voice, he spoke. Hello Valerie. I’ve heard so many things about you! How is your Christmas so far? I felt myself blush. 

            Grandma had come back into the room and made the strangest announcement. We would all be going out to Howard Johnson’s for ice cream and to get our coats on. I pulled back into the safety of Grandpap’s chair waiting to see if it was all a big joke. Later, after all of us got into the big station wagon and we passed the third Howard Johnson's on Route 40, I looked at my two older sisters sharing a conspiratorial glance. Mom hadn't looked at me since we all got in the car. That's when I knew.

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Hannah sits contracted now in a permanent sitting position.  She has lost her ability to see due to the genetic curse of macular degeneration and her ability to talk from a series of strokes, but she can still play movies in her mind’s eye.   With the loss of other senses her hearing has become especially acute, so the movies are occasionally interrupted.  It’s her daughter, Evie, come to visit like a swirling dervish.  She has a love/hate relationship with the staff of this Jewish nursing home her son has so graciously provided for her.  And here Evie comes, shouting orders to staff as she makes her way to Hannah’s room.  Evie is the glue that holds the world together for Hannah.  Her son, on the other hand, may have the money to pay for this place, but his monthly visits are quick and brief.  His real reason for traveling to New Jersey from his home in Miami is to visit his girlfriend and daughter, his second family, that he keeps under wraps from his first family down in Florida.  Hannah knows all about it, she hears him on the phone to Susan, murmuring he’ll be there soon, how’s their daughter?, yata yata…..

Hannah prefers spending time watching her movies.  Snippets from the past that she is trying to assemble into a chronological, coherent full-length feature film.  Her very first scenes are not memories at all but stories her beloved mother, Blanche, told her of life in Grudna, Poland.  The story starts for Hannah on June 14th, 1906 some 88 years ago.  She can picture the little collection of people at her father’s funeral, hear her sister, two brothers and her mother crying.  She was just a baby and had her own near-death experience at an early age. 

After her father’s death, her mother struggled to support the family collecting eggs produced by the farms in the little hamlet they lived in.  Blanche walked town to town with her cart bartering the eggs for meat, produce and other needed goods.  An old grandmother from the neighborhood took care of baby Hannah in exchange for food while her brothers and sister cared for the chickens, cooked, and tended the vegetable garden.  As Blanche arrived home after an exhausting week, the neighbors warned her as she approached her house that baby Hannah had taken sick and was dying.  They advised Blanche to start preparing for her funeral.  Blanche found Hannah bright red with a high fever and a rampant infection that was eating away at the skin of her throat and neck.  It was later discovered that the old woman’s eyesight had failed so poorly that when she would feed baby Hannah, she did not see the food running down the little one’s chin and neck.  The food, over the course of a week, started steadily decomposing and inflaming the skin of Hannah’s throat and neck.  By the time Blanche arrived home, late Friday afternoon the baby was burning up with infection.  Upon seeing the rotting skin of Hannah’s neck, Blanche cleaned it up the best she could, put a homemade brace around the baby’s head and neck and raced to the nearest doctor, two farm villages away.  The doctor cleaned the infected areas, applied poultices around Hannah’s neck and showed Blanche how to make and use them.  Blanche was determined to save her daughter and spent much of the next few weeks applying clean cloths around the infected areas several times a day.  The poultice was a simple mixture of several herbs crushed and tied in cloth then soaked in hot water and applied to the ravaged skin.  Within 2 weeks, baby Hannah was healing with no fever.  Blanche had not been able to get out on the road to sell eggs during that time, but the rest of the village brought food. 

It made Hannah sad to think that the poultices that cured her had no effect on her mother’s illness 15 years later.  But life was precarious with croup, rheumatic fever, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, typhoid fever, diphtheria tetanus, all playing a role in preventing on average one in four babies from surviving to their first birthday.  A simple abscessed tooth could cause systemic sepsis, overwhelming the heathiest.  One of her brother’s died of typhoid fever when she was just starting to walk.  Again listening to her mother’s stories in her mind’s eye, she could see the hamlet gathered with her family once again sobbing over a grave. 

Her most horrifying memory from her childhood was being buried alive in a potato gulley.  There were several waves of Russian pograms against Jews in Poland.  As Czarist troops stormed through the tiny villiages of Poland, if they didn’t simply line up Jews for execution, the would round up the Jewish children.  Any boys 13 years old or older would be used as decoys and human shields for Russian soldiers on the front lines.  The girls of at least 13 years old or older would be taken and used to do the soldiers cleaning, cooking, sewing, farming, or in the worst case, would become the soldiers sex slaves.  The good religious Christians of Hannah’s village, who sympathized with the Jews and their plight, would assist in harboring Jewish children by hiding them in the haylofts, floorboards, mattresses and garbage bins of their farms.  Children were often smuggled out during the night and placed on cattle boats by means of bribes such as a piece of jewelry or a few coins, and then eventually onto vessels leaving for America.  This was a treacherous 385 mile journey through Russia occupied territory to the north to reach the port at Gdansk and the Baltic Sea.   For families that did not have the means to smuggle their children out, the potato gullies that stored the potato harvest were used on short notice to hide children or protect them from the daily bombings and raids by Russian and then German troops.  The children were literally buried alive and the parents would lie over the gulleys during bombardments.  Russian authorities were told the troughs were needed to cultivate potato crops when they swept through villages.  In Grudna, at least, the strategy worked to save Hannah and her siblings. 

Hannah’s sister, Shara and brother Ely were smuggled to America when they were in their early teens, the minute Blanche had enough money for bribes and passage.  Hannah was too young and there was only enough smuggling for her two older siblings.  Within a few years, Hannah’s mother became progressively debilitated by what, Hannah decided much later, was most likely cancer.  Hannah earned enough money sewing, knitting and baking and selling eggs to provide the two of them with basic necessities.  As there were no doctors, medicines, treatments or a basic understanding of what was wrong with Blanche, Hannah sought the advice of the village “wise women” who practiced folk medicine.  Their best advice was to go to the swamps, a few miles away, and collect fresh seaweed to create packs to apply daily to the festering sores on her mother’s body.  So, on top of having to do an abundance of chores and work to support her and her mother, Hannah set out daily to the swamps with the help of a friend to collect fresh seaweed.  Hannah would attach a rope around her waist and wade out into the swamp while her friend held the other end on high ground.  To collect the large amounts of seaweed needed, Hannah sometimes had to swim to the deepest parts of the swamp.  Several times the rope gave way, and her friend would have to run back to the village for help, while Anna struggled to keep from drowning in the swamp’s quicksand.  She would do anything for her mother.

On her deathbed, Blanche sewed a pouch into a secret waistband on Hannah’s best dress.  In it she placed 3 gold coins (rubles) and an amulet that Hannah was to find later, when she needed it most.  Blanche had hoped that these coins would enable her daughter, when the opportunity arose, to start a new life in America. 

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Opening scene: introduces protagonist, foreshadows primary conflict, introduces a core setting protagonist will return to later in the story (childhood home)

Note: This is the beginning of my manuscript, which doesn't contain dialogue. I can post other parts of my book that contain dialogue if that is helpful. 

Every now and then, my father would just show up at our house. The night before I left for Ohio was one of those times. I hadn’t talked to him in months at that point, but I was only half-surprised to see him. Grandma must have told him I’d be leaving the next day. His hair was grayer than when I last saw him and he’d gained weight – I remember Mom once telling me that he always put on weight when he was manic. There were stains on his blue polo, I wasn’t sure if it was coffee or car oil, but that probably meant his girlfriend kicked him out again and he was back living in Grandma’s basement. I never asked him to come in when he showed up like that. Rather, I’d always step outside with no shoes on, hoping he would get the hint that I couldn’t talk for long. We chatted for a few minutes like old acquaintances, both trying not to think about the old hurts too much. Before he left, he gave me some cash and told me how proud he was that I decided to go into journalism. It was something he always wanted to do himself had things gone a little differently. He offered to drive me to the airport the next day, but I just shook my head, “I’m good, Mom is gonna drive me.” Before he left, he gave me a hug and I could tell he was genuinely proud. I’ve been thinking about that day a lot, how I would have spent a couple minutes more standing outside my house with him would I have known it would be one of the last times I’d ever see him.

To be completely honest, I didn’t give too much thought to Dad’s emotional state that night. Once I closed the door behind him, I complained to my mom why she told him I was home and without waiting for an answer, went back to my room to pack my things. As I stuffed my suitcase with clothes and farewell gifts, all I could think about was the new life I was about to start the next morning – a journey of self-discovery that would start with a nearly 15 hours plane ride to a town in the middle of America most people didn’t even know existed. It sounded like a good idea when I applied for the scholarship six months ago, but now the thought of leaving home for a year made my heart feel heavy. For a moment, I thought about changing plans and staying at home, but part of me knew there was no turning back now. I barely slept that night. Too many thoughts about the what ifs. Plus, I had never been to the Midwest before, and there was a real chance I might hate Bowling Green.

Before we left for the airport the next morning, I turned around one last time to look around our house, part of me fearing that I would forget the familiar smells and sights. I could tell Mom was holding back tears as she told me it was time to leave. It broke my heart looking at her, knowing it was too late now to make up for a past we’d never shared. 

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My opening scene is the first daughter reading the letter she receives from her dead father. The dialogue is mostly internal, so I opted to share a section that has a better sampling of dialogue. I can submit the other if preferred.

This is the start of the train ride for the third daughter, twenty-year-old Aster. She's been commanded by the nunnery to visit her estranged, dying father. The nuns who raised her disclosed that her mother died when she was a baby and nothing more. Aster has no recollection of her. Despite being forced to go, she is curious to know why she was abandoned. Troy is the messenger whom she meets when he delivers her telegram. There is immediate electricity between them and he gives her a ride to the station the next morning--on his bike.

“Well, this is it”, Troy helps her off the bike and delivers an assuring smile. “It should be arriving in ten minutes or so,” he glances at his watch and looks over the station. “You going to be okay?”

“Whew. Yes, I think so. I mean, no use in protesting.” She releases a short sigh and watches him evaluate the area.  “I thank you for the ride and. . .  the friendship.” A long silence sits against the rails and depot house.  Aster continues,  “I would really like to see you again some day. You are my first,  real friend.  I mean, one that is my age and not a woman.” 

“I will be here. And I wrote down my information if you need anything.”  He pulls a small yellow booklet from his pocket and hands it to her. 

“Look inside the first page.  It has my contact information on it.” He directs her to open the first page. 

“Oh, my goodness. Thank you. Thank you so much. Such a beautiful cover. The color reminds me of daffodils. I will take good care of this. And it does help.  Knowing I have someone on the outside–so to speak.” She looks down at her clumsy attire and stalls. 

“I think you have deep pockets in those roomy pants of yours. Maybe it will fit perfectly in the front one. Deep and at your hip, so nothing can fall out,” he chuckles. 

“They are a bit large aren’t they.” She shares in his laughter and opens the pocket. The small book drops in with ease. 

“You know the best thing about pockets?” Troy poises.

“What would that be?” Aster smiles and struggles with thoughts of not ever seeing Troy again.

“You can feel what’s inside.  What is there and what might be missing. I’m going to keep you right here in my shirt pocket–near my heart. Til we meet again, my sweet friend.” He repeats the infectious grin, and turns to ride off. She watches as he weaves the traffic and takes note of his cautious nature. 

“Are you ready to board, Mam?” The porter’s voice breaks her watching.

“Yes. I think so.” She hands him her ticket. 

“Looks like you are headed to Montana?”

“Yes, I am.”

“Beautiful place.”

“That’s what I have heard.” 

“May I help you with your bag?”

“I. . . .I  . . . am not sure. I mean, sure.” She follows him with an awkward gait, up the steps and onto the railcar.

“How about right here, Mam? Will this seat work for you? No one behind you. It's got a nice window and room for your bag.”  Aster looks at him for the first time.  His eyes are bold and round. He stands twice her height, yet keeps his distance. He’s a dark African man. He places her bag in the aligning empty seat.  “You can keep this right here. We don’t plan on having a full train this trip.  There’s food and drinks in the next car over–a little snack place.”

“Where do you live?” Aster braves curiosity.

“Me?! I’m from Chicago.  Now that’s a big city. I wouldn’t want to see you letting off there. I’m much obliged to see you get to those small places where things aren’t so. . . dangerous.  Lots of people can mean trouble for a young woman traveling alone.”

“Well, it's nice to meet you, sir. And you may call me. . .  Aster. You don’t need to call me Mam.”

“Okay, Aster.  It is nice to meet you.  You should arrive at your destination by 18:30. You let me know if you need anything.”

“I will do that.  Thank you. Thank you very much.”

 Aster’s belongings appear modest as she notices others loading with large suitcases. She looks for something familiar in each passenger’s belongings as they move past her.  A tall slender woman carries a bright colored bag loaded with tassels and silver buttons. The woman shifts her weight back and forth as she walks past and settles a few seats down.  A small woman enters carrying  a white square purse with the large gold initials E. S. on the metal clasp. Her steps are small as she shuffles and stops to examine each berth. She continues to the next car.  Decisions don’t come easy for some, she observes. 

Aster’s mind settles in as passengers find their seats. Everything sinks in when one sits still. The fly in the window; the crumpling of paper wrappings; the voice of a new friend. And the death of an unknown mother. What my father will be able to tell me is her constant wonder. The lurch of the train sets her thoughts to tasks. She unpacks her life in small increments of bottoms and tops.  With a tender push of her palm, she presses the fine lines of her civilian disguise as wrinkled cloth never pleases her. Winding up the few loose socks, she matches their stripes and rolls them tight. An inventory of protections; familiar objects that will carry her to this unusual place of discovery.  She settles in and opens her heart once again to the stashed notes and a little yellow book.


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This never should have been my story. It should have been hers. The last thing I wanted to do was write about my own life. I was nobody. But the night they took her from me, I was forced to make a choice. I had to set out on a path to become someone new, someone braver, wiser, stronger. Only I learned there was someone else lurking deep within me all along, someone fighting to break free, to claw her way out of my frigid shell…        

 And seeing that it was a cold October night...I supposed I, like the fog, had no choice but to curl once around the house, and then fall asleep. That sounded pretty good to me. It was time to call it a night.

 I shut The Collected Works of T.S. Eliot and got up to lock up the library. It was a quiet Sunday night, and there wasn’t a soul left perusing the lonely shelves. And yes, I was well aware that most seventeen-year-olds have better things to do on a weekend than stay late at their shift at the library reading 19th century poetry. But hey, at least I wasn’t a sexually-frustrated middle aged man stifled by Edwardian society, unable to make a single decision or formulate a single phrase. I mean, not yet. Just give me thirty years and change my gender, and I bet I could put J. Alfred Prufrock to shame.

With a firm shut of the old wooden door and the sound of the lock clicking into place, I headed out into the night. I buttoned up my jacket and stuffed my hands into my pockets, shivering slightly in the cool autumn breeze. The crisp air wrapped around me, smelling faintly of cinnamon, pine, and a soft, familiar earthiness that always seemed to crop up this time of year. Something about that smell pricked at my heart with the knowledge that this would be my last fall here for who knew how long. This time next year, I’d be living the collegiate life, trying to find my place in a crazy new world. Whatever, no big deal, it was just the next phase of my life. What was there to be afraid of?

The cobblestone path was dimly lit by yellow lamplight, and shadows covered the ground like pools of spilled ink. My own shadow crept beside me: a larger, contorted version of my body that blended seamlessly into the night. This town basically shut down after eight, so the only sound that pierced the silence was the soft pattering of my boots on the stone. I was now imagining myself curled up with some apple cider watching some corny cult classic, and I picked up my pace a bit.  

As I turned a corner, the breeze picked up some crunchy leaves in my path, tangling my hair and whistling faintly in my ears.  

And then there was a sound that must have been the wind, because surely there was no other possibility. But it sounded ever so slightly like a whisper of my name.

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Daughter of Darkness (by Mindy Halleck)

A troubled clairvoyant holocaust survivor—trapped between her new life in America and her past—must embrace her dark powers to defeat a fanatical occultist SS officer who is hunting her.

This is the opening scene of my (magical realism) novel, Daughter of Darkness. This scene sets up the antagonist vs protagonist plot and is the first time they meet. It serves the story in that it establishes the necessary mythos and language, to understand the following story and primary conflict.

Chapter 1 ~ 1939 ~ Gdańsk Poland


At twelve years old, Esmée Boruvka realized her clairvoyance was not the blessing her parents thought but was instead a defect, a hole in her soul with the potential to attract evil. 

Esmée learned this truth about herself at one of the two tables in her childhood home. One table she adored because it was a place where memories were made. But the other table terrified her; it vibrated with the dark energies of Seth, the Egyptian god of chaos, destruction, confusion, storms, and evil.

The table she loved was the long oak-wood table in their kitchen where the walls were the color of English lavender blue, and where in summer warm sunlight splashed down on them from ceiling-high white windowpanes, and where in autumn the ping-ping-ping of raindrops against the glass and the crackling of the kitchen’s large fireplace announced the end of one season and the beginning of another.

And it was at that table their Saturday morning ritual existed; Esmée seated with hot cocoa and her coloring books, her favorite being David and Goliath because David killed the giant with just one powerful rock. Her mama rolled a round of dough the color of one of her prized alabaster Shabti out across the table to make a batch of her legendary cinnamon rolls––a recipe she found in Egypt––the smell of which lingered throughout the house for days.

“Ancient Egyptians used Ceylon Cinnamon for thousands of years,” her mama said. “Prizing it for its health benefits.” She freckled her magic powder across the soft dough. “This spice was so revered among ancient nations it was described in the Hebrew Bible as consecrated incense used in rituals, on altars, and as a gift fit for monarchs and even for a god.” She said, always teaching.

“I have sprinkled my bed with myrrh, aloes, and cinnamon, it says in Proverbs.” She smiled. “Our bodies are temples, my darling, always use only the finest ingredients. Add a pinch of orange zest and a fine brandy, and viola, your cinnamon rolls are famous.” She flour-dusted the tip of Esmée’s nose. “Remember, inferior cinnamon is treachery on your cells. Learn about God’s herbs, both sweet and toxic, most can heal a body, but some can kill. Important to know the difference, wouldn’t you say?”

Esmée nodded taking in her mother’s vast mastery of the many mysterious things in their realm.

And her mama’s cinnamon rolls were legendary. Considered a true gift when given, an honor when served and a recipe people asked for but were never granted. “For magic to exist its secrets must be protected.” She’d say with a wink.

And it was her cinnamon rolls that the young blue-eyed SS officer said brought him to their doorstep that Saturday when Esmée’s papa was not home.

“Allow me to introduce myself,” he said. “Lieutenant Wolfgang Edzard König.” Behind him, two soldiers stood guard on the doorstep. “They call me the Wolf … but I do not like that.”

He was the first SS officer Esmée had seen up close, though she had seen them in magazines, and her father certainly had plenty to say about them, their uniforms, flags, medals, and cruelty. The lieutenant towered over them. His grey uniform was dotted with Third Reich medal bars, the iron cross, and a metal swastika dangled from his chest, his black leather boots went to his knees, and he wore the largest ring Esmée had ever seen outside of an Egyptian museum, a ring with a swastika of red rubies.

“I have heard of your sweet cinnamon rolls,” he said. “Fit for a king they say.” He removed his black visor cap. Esmée’s eyes focused on the cap’s insignia, an eagle above skull and crossbones. A shiver went through her.

“I … I am busy today,” her mama said. “Perhaps tomorrow––”

“I will wait.” Uninvited, he stepped inside the foyer and firmly placed his leather-gloved hand on Esmée’s shoulder.

And when he touched Esmée she was unable to move, feeling a heaviness on her spirit she’d never felt before. She knew these men called Nazis were hated by her father and abhorrent to her mother because they recently forbade Jewish scholars like her mama, to teach.

“This is a very nice home,” he said. His gaze traveled up the spiral staircase, along the shelved walls, and into the study.

They lived in her papa’s family home, an 1870s dove white manor house with four large pillars out front and a red stone porch beneath them that hugged the entire house. It was a happy house where her parents had parties, where up to one hundred people luxuriated and overlooked her mama’s sweet-smelling lavender field, rose garden, and water fountains. In the far corner of that porch was where Esmée collected her stones, stacking them along the banister in delicately balanced sculptures and elaborate feats of near megalithic engineering, her papa always said. And now on that porch, two angry soldiers stood at attention glaring at her guardian stones.

“This is an extravagant home,” he said. “It has been in your family for many years, yes?”

Her mama nodded as he stepped toward the sitting room, their most precious sanctuary.

There was an invisible line drawn down the middle of the sitting room––a room with twenty-foot ceilings and so many windows it had the appearance of a solarium. On one side was her mama’s world where she collected discoveries about female goddesses within ancient Israelite and Egyptian religions: black onyx Canopic jars that supposedly held the organs of an Egyptian goddess, stacks upon stacks of books, artifacts carved in wood, etched in stone, burned of bronze or gold––all in a whirlwind of lavender scented dust and disorder. But to Esmée that dust and disorder looked like flecks of gold falling from heaven and landing on flawlessly orchestrated pandemonium. Alongside her mama’s ancient chaos, existing in perfect harmony was her Papa’s orderly world: artifacts of the early engineers displayed on lit shelves or enclosed in shiny glass domes, measuring rods, a picture of them both in Sudan in front of the Nubian Pyramids, photographs, and drawings of other shrines, even a piece of papyrus with ancient engineering notes which hung framed in glass above his well-organized bookshelves––it was his prized possession. But it was these cherished possessions and their exceptional collective knowledge, even more than their ultimate crime of being Jewish, that caught the ravening eye of The Wolf.

Esmée’s mama, Sabine Boruvka lectured at the university about ancient religions and death rituals, and she philosophized about goddesses and her own Kabballah beliefs at the drop of a hat. And her papa never let an opportunity pass where he could proudly explain the origins of his collections. “Did you know,” he always began, “There were fourteen pyramids constructed for their queens, several of whom were renowned warrior queens.”

And it was on that note their relationship formed. They were young graduate students in 1913, both volunteer archeologists in Egypt collaborating with Americans trying to discover the Nubian Dynasty. Her papa’s interest was in the construction of pyramids and burial rooms and her mamas was in the ancient dynasties that worshipped female goddesses and who referred to them as God’s wife, which the Nubians often did. They had Esmée late in life saying she was a gift from those Nubian Gods of Sudan. And when they discovered Esmée’s gift of clairvoyance they claimed it was confirmation of their encounters with ancient gods.

In their main dining room with its twenty-foot ceilings and gold-leafed wallpapered walls, was the other table, the one that frightened Esmée. It was an Egyptian Revival table that seated eighteen and that had wood-carved Cleopatra-Sphinx legs. In the center of the table was a black vase with towering plumes of stone-grey ostrich feathers that nearly touched the chandelier. At the end of the palm-lined room with high glass French doors was a pair of Egyptian Revival Thrown Chairs that Esmée’s mama forbade her to EVER sit on, especially when armed with an ice cream cone.

And along the Egyptian Revival hutch were antique plates and several Egyptian Shabti––small figures carved in skin-colored alabaster or wood, representing persons who would perform tasks for the deceased in the afterlife. In one corner stood a bronze statue of Nephthys, the protective goddess of the dead, and on the wall above it hung three pieces of red and gold ancient Funerary Rights Papyrus, all on white and mounted in cherry wood frames, depicting the Weighing of the Heart in the Hall of Two Truths, where the ostrich feather of Ma'at, the goddess of truth and justice responsible for maintaining order in the universe, was used as a balance against the weight of the heart; if the heart weighed more, the soul was condemned and eaten by the demon Ammit, the Devourer of the Dead, the Eater of Hearts, as ancient Egyptians believed.

Esmée’s parents entertained artists, writers, and scholars in that room where the judicious Ma’at was embodied. But despite all its opulence, in that room, Esmée heard an eternal weeping and felt ill at ease when she entered. And when she entered that room, she felt the table’s energy pulsating as if ready to burst into flames, and she knew someday it would.


Her Mama’s eyes studied the lieutenant’s face. “I’ve seen you before?”

“Yes, professor, we met in your classroom. I have attended a few of your lectures.”

“Yes,” she said. “Yes, I remember. You sat in the back with a young woman.”

“My sister is a fan of yours,” he said. “Well, she was.”

“Yes, well, perhaps we will be allowed to teach again soon.” Her mama’s eyes narrowed as they traveled past him through the glass door to the two uniformed guards on their doorstep.

He nodded toward the papyrus on the wall. “I am familiar with the weighing of the heart, the feather of Ma’at, feather of fate,” he said. “I have one.”

“Well,” she said, “These are artifacts of ancient beliefs. Still … one must strive to have a light heart, after all, we will be judged on our deeds.”

“Perhaps … however the bearer of the Feather of Fate will go directly to the afterlife without judgment, correct?” A menacing grin twitched the side of his face. “At least that’s what my superstitious mother told me.” He smiled and patted Esmée’s head. “Now, those rolls?”

“Yes,” she said. More nervous than Esmée had ever seen her. “I…we have just made a fresh batch. I will be right back.” She held out her hand, “Come Esmée.”

“Your lovely daughter can wait with me.”

Her mama’s face went pale. “A…yes… all right.” She said with great reluctance. She looked down at Esmée and forced a smile, “I will be right back.” She then hurried down the hall.

He motioned for Esmée to enter the dining room. “Sit,” he said. His tone of voice grew harsh. “Sit, child. There.” He pointed to one of the forbidden throne chairs. ....

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Comparative Narrative


Colony of Maryland

Late August 1751

Colonel Benjamin Tasker Jr. couldn’t take his mind off the intriguing letter he received a week ago from his brother-in-law as he rode his horse on a path through the forests of Anne Arundel County:

“I need to talk to you about the purchase of a horse the next time you come to Belair. This venture will require you to travel extensively on my behalf. I will explain more when you arrive.”

It ended abruptly with the flourishing signature Samuel Ogle, Royal Provisional Governor of Maryland”.

The handsome 31-year colonel often traveled to Belair, the governor’s imposing estate, from his father’s small farm in Galesville near the Chesapeake Bay or from the simple wooden house he sometimes shared with his fellow councilmen in Annapolis, the colony’s capital city. The governor appreciated Tasker’s astute skills with business, government, and horses so much that he frequently invited him – and paid him — to assist with the management of affairs at Belair.  

The elderly statesman demanded so much of Tasker’s time that the colonel had thought of asking to temporarily move into Belair, instead of traveling alone through the wilderness every few weeks like he was doing now. It was not safe.

“Require me to travel extensively” the colonel said out loud to his horse Dancer. “For the purchase of a horse. Travel extensively. What can all that mean? Maybe more than just traveling to England?” He patted the gray stallion’s neck. Speaking to his horse when he was in the woods calmed him. He preferred the company of horses over those of many humans, he discovered long ago. “I go there often for my tobacco trading travels. Maybe Sam wants me to travel to Spain? Or perhaps Portugal?”

A twig snapped to the right. Dancer flinched. Something large moved through the brushy growth in the forest about 60 feet away. Tasker saw him – a dark-skinned, bare-chested man wearing a deerskin skirt and with long tangled hair decorated with hawk feathers. A Piscataway Indian. A sizable tribe of them still lingered more than a century after the English settlers arrived in the colony. Encountering an Indian while traveling alone was dangerous; the savage can pull off an unarmed man from his horse, strike the rider in the head with a club to disable or kill him, climb into the saddle, and gallop off with the horse, both never to be seen again.

The Indian disappeared into the trees’ underbrush. Tasker legged Dancer into a canter, knowing that a clearing was up ahead where the Indian may feel exposed and thus spoil his ambush attempt. The colonel checked his two flintlock pistols in their holsters built within the front part of his saddle, which he always kept loaded but seldom fired. He was a good shot but rusty since his service in the Anne Arundel County militia a few years ago. Dancer and his rider approached the clearing where the trees gave way to an open field thick with high grasses; bobwhites and pheasants fluttered from the trail as they approached.

Tasker slowed Dancer down to a walk and peered around him. The afternoon sun of late fall brightened the surrounding grasslands to a golden light. Faint smells of ripening apples, newly-harvested hay, and curing tobacco drifted from nearby farms. Countless varieties of birds chattered at the sudden appearance of the horse and rider. He listened for sounds of movement and heard nothing except Dancer’s hoofbeats, but he sensed the Indian was nearby. Then – there! Over there – still about 60 feet away to the right, the feathered black hair flashed between clusters of shrubbery. The Indian had followed him.

The colonel reached for one of the flintlocks and pulled Dancer to a stop. He aimed the weapon several feet above where he saw the movement and pulled the trigger. Sparks flew from the pistol’s muzzle and barrel as the shot’s explosion shattered the natural quiet. Tasker heard running footsteps rustling in the grasses; they grew fainter by the second, and he finally saw the Indian running away from him and Dancer, not bothering to conceal himself, his long hair flying behind him. The colonel watched until the Indian disappeared into a copse of trees a half-mile away. Tasker no longer had a sense of danger. The savage was gone.

“That one was too close, Dancer old fellow.” I should demand from Sam that I move into Belair. thought the colonel. T’would save me and my horse a lot of travel from the farm in Galesville and be far less dangerous.

He straightened his faded dark blue button-front jacket and beige cotton trousers — worn to a nearly threadbare existence from constant wear in all sorts of weather. He wiped off the brush that caught onto his equally worn-down leather boots. He took off his black three-cornered hat on his head and pulled back his long brown hair that came loose during the rush and tied it back with a leather string. After placing the hat back on his head, Tasker urged his horse onward at a walk and thought about the good things that awaited him at Belair during his visits every few weeks: good hot food, a clean spare bedroom with a goose down mattress on a large bed, cheerful fires in fireplaces that lit up cherrywood floors and wall paneling, warm hospitality from his sister, and courteous – if somewhat aloof - treatment from the governor. As well as working with the governor’s excellent Thoroughbred racehorses.

Of Tasker’s many skills and occupations – spice trader, Surveyor General of the Eastern Shore, councilman of the Maryland Assembly, Naval Officer of Annapolis, occasional diplomat, farm manager, and horse trainer – the one he enjoyed the most and for which he received the greatest admiration was as a trainer of racehorses. He had the ability to spot a potential racer of any horse breed and to bring out the best in the animal so it would successfully win races. He had a rare gift of sensing a horse’s capabilities and thoughts, and, without uttering a sound except an occasional “Here boy” or “There you go, girl” in a low voice, could encourage the animal to run as fast as it possibly can for the joy of it. If the horse became frightened or agitated, he could quickly calm it down with a few soft words, gentle strokes along its neck, and a calm gaze into the horse’s eyes. Horses loved him for it, and they responded readily to his soothing treatment.

Many estate owners sought out the colonel for his training skills, since horse racing was fast becoming popular to settle disputes and prove a gentleman’s high reputation; yet he didn’t charge high prices for his services since he knew that horse training fee were typically low. He trained horses mostly for the love of the job – and many wealthy landowners took advantage of him for this. Especially Governor Ogle.

Tasker’s thoughts returned to the governor’s letter. A purchase of a horse. A purchase that required extensive travel.

“T’will be nice to go to a new country.” Tasker said to Dancer. “And to get away from those high-minded blokes like the Hanson and Darby families who treat me like a field hand when I train their lazy racehorses.”

Then a thought suddenly struck him, like a face slap, a lightening bolt. He almost stood in his saddle from its intensity. What am I doing?! Why do I do everything Sam asks me to do at the drop of a hat? I’m tired of it! Blasted tired of it! Ask me to travel overseas to purchase a horse for him?? I will have to temporarily leave my many occupations, which will be very difficult for me to do. Who does Sam think he is?

I should take this opportunity to demand a racehorse of my own while in this country, wherever it is. That’s it! That’s what I should do!

The more he thought about the idea, the more it made sense to him. After all, I’ve trained the racehorses in Anne Arundel County to be successful for years. Why CAN”T I have my own racing stallion? A Thoroughbred stallion? With the greatest bloodlines possible? I’m worthy of it and the time is right for me to have one. Yes! I will train that horse to become the greatest undefeated champion in Anne Arundel County. In the Maryland Colony, perhaps. What respect that will bring me!!

His mind raced. He thought of other situations that could come about from this meeting with the governor. “Might it mean travel to Spain to buy an Andalusian stallion? As well as one for myself? Andalusians are not exactly fast but they’re incredibly strong and beautiful. Or it might mean travel to Saudi Arabia to purchase an Arabian stallion! How glorious that would be! To enjoy the seaside of Jeddah!” he shouted to the woods and the sky. Dancer pricked his ears back and forth.

 Tasker’s imagination flew. He imagined himself riding shiny black Arabians on the sunny Sahara Desert beaches, far away from slaves, muddy fields, cold winters, and the haughty airs of Governor Ogle and the nearby plantation families. He wore loose white linens and walked barefoot in the sand. He swam in the warm ocean, ate oranges and dates, and envisioned Priscilla, his deceased fiancé, standing on a nearby sand dune wearing a loose white linen dress that that billowed around her in the warm wind. Her long light brown hair danced around her lovely face. She waved to him and laughed.

No. I will not think of her.

All daydreams vanished as the colonel’s mind went quiet. He and Dancer progressed peacefully on the path to Belair, which then widened into a well-packed dirt road – the Collington Road – that was cleared through the woods by slaves thirty years earlier and that stretched by the entrance to the Belair estate. Tasker said no more to his horse and listened to the singing tree frogs, occasional chirping birds, and the steady thud, thud, thud of the horse’s hoofs stepping on trodden earth.



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Blocks from the bay, in Colored Town, ole Banneker crowed double-time, then strutted beneath the porch of an abandoned shotgun shack. Seconds later, the sun reached the two-story Dade County pine house painted white with green shutters piercing an upstairs bedroom window protected by curtains made from lace tablecloths, displaying their intimacy with holiday gravy.

The sun and the humidity made the pink bedroom glow, made the webs, spun overnight by ambitious artisans in the ceiling’s corners, glisten. In front of the dresser, an oscillating fan perched in a wooden chair held vigil. The fan provided a scant layer of cool air hovering between the ceiling and the top bunk bed where Sukie Wilson’s sixteen-year-old body lay.

Between the lone mosquito nipping her ears, the heat, and her recurring dreams, Sukie spent most of the night searching for cool, dry spots on the floral cotton sheets. At first, she lay at the bed’s head until sweat soaked that spot. Then she caterpillared her long, lean body to the bed’s bottom. When sweat claimed that spot, she swung her legs over the bed’s side rail, rested her head somewhere in the bed’s middle, and tried to catch wisps from the fan’s squeaky attempts to cool the room. But the fan barely circulated the humid air drifting in from the jalousie windows upward.

Now at dawn, which should’ve brought relief, she competed with the sun for remnants of cool air. She found none.

“Shoot. Wish Mama Ruth would turn on the air,” Sukie grumbled, half asleep, knowing only out-of-town company warranted air conditioning.

Patting the sweat-soaked sheet beneath her butt, she sucked her teeth and drifted into another dream. One so real, she smelled the strong stench of pee, felt the warm trickle beneath her butt like when she was little. Shifting on the sheets, Sukie muttered out loud as she dreamt, “Ciana, you done peed again.”

“What?” Ciana rubbed her eyes.

“You too old to be pissing in the bed. Ain’t your mama taught you nothing?” She elbowed her six-year-old cousin out of the bed and onto the bedroom floor.

“Didn’t mean it,” Ciana whined. “The Boogie Man inside the bathroom.”

“Humph! Trifling heifer. Ugly as you is, you scare the Boogie Man ‘way,” Sukie hissed, her voice low and unforgiving. “And be quiet.”

The warning came too late. A door screeched. Moonlight flowed through the upstairs hallway. A narrow shadow emerged, and the soles of worn bedroom slippers shuffled down the hallway like the Ghost of Christmas Past.

Shivers claimed Sukie’s body. Squeezing her eyes, she used her hand to cover Ciana’s mouth and prayed the shadow away. It almost worked.

“Ouch! Heathen heifer!” Sukie grabbed her hand, inspecting Ciana’s bite.

Armed with a towel flung across her shoulder, the shadow flicked on the light. “Ciana, don’t you fret none. Sukie don’t mean what she say” Their grandmama, Mama Ruth, hoisted Ciana from the floor. “Change your nightie, ‘n go sleep on the settee.” She reached for the box of Arm & Hammer baking soda on the windowsill tucked behind the curtains.

“Ain’t no need to pour none. Still gonna smell like pee in the morning.” Sukie nursed her bite with her lips, then kicked the pee-soaked summer quilt to the floor. Washday was Wednesday: four days away. Mama Ruth would never hang bed clothes outside before washday, broadcasting a pee-pot lived in her house.

Mama Ruth patted the baking soda into a thick paste on the sheet and spread the towel over it. “Whatcha say?” She glared at Sukie. “You know it’s an accident. Chile got a weak bladder, that’s all.” Her voice barely above a whisper, she picked up Ciana’s wet nightie and panties.

Sukie sucked her teeth. “Nah-huh. She just too lazy to take her narrow, red behind to the bathroom. She always be dranking after dinner. ‘specially Coca-Cola.” Rolling her eyes, Sukie went to the dresser. She exchanged her daddy’s wet Fruit of the Loom T-shirt for a dry one, dropped it onto the floor, and muttered, “You always be taking her side like she helpless. She ‘bout as helpless as a newborn rattler. Meaner than a polecat in heat. Stingier than a virgin on prom night.”

“What’s that? Speak up. Don’t wanna mistake back-talkin’ for talkin’ ‘bout me behind my back. ‘n what you know ‘bout virgins?”

Sukie jumped. Dang, she thought, that woman can hear a rat piss on cotton and see trouble coming a week away.

“Go to sleep. It’ll be fore day in the mornin directly. ‘n if you keep rollin ‘em eyes, they’s gonna roll out ya head.” She picked up Sukie’s wet T-shirt, then planted a kiss on her forehead. “‘n ‘pologize.”

“Yes ma’am.” But she wasn’t about to apologize. Not tonight. Not even on Judgment

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MY NOVEL has two voices. The first voice is Samantha (Sammy) who opens the book...

I, Samantha J. Evans, am a product of the United States Virgin Islands. I was born on June 26th, 1980 on the island of St. Thomas or Rock City as it is affectionately called by those born and raised there. There were a lot of things I loved about my hometown that made me proud of my heritage and where I came from. First, there was the way the sun glistened and shined on the sea like sparkling diamonds. Then, there was the warmth of the smooth, pearly white sand and its soothing, therapeutic touch. And let’s not forget the verbal accents of the lively, spirited people that lived there. Growing up in a Caribbean territory of the United States, I felt like I had a great amount of exposure to the world. I had the pleasure of studying V.I. History, Caribbean History, U.S. History and World History. I appreciated my exposure to a wholistic view of the world.

As much as I loved my island home, the threats of hurricanes every year were not easy on my young soul. If I had to be honest, that is the main reason I wanted to leave once I grew up; if you ignored the fact that I also couldn’t handle the gossip and drama that goes along with small town life. An island the size of thirty-two square miles with all of its melodrama was destined to destroy my claustrophobic, anxiety-ridden soul. 

Starting from my elementary school years, I realized how much I loved school and learning. Because I had high cheekbones and hazel-colored eyes people expected me to be a prissy girly-girl, but I was not. My schoolmates called me a bookworm because I always had my nose buried in a book. On most nights, I read an entire book in one sitting. Reading was what I loved most. If I ever walked onto a school stage or cheered on a team you better believe it was for a grade or extra credit. 

By the time I entered the 9th grade at Charlotte Amalie High School nothing much had changed. Reading remained my favorite activity. I read so much that I rarely had to study. For me, the information became a permanent part of my brain. I did not think that I was a genius or anything. It was just a natural effect of consuming an enormous amount of information and literature.

Outside of books, I was severely lacking in social skills. I was only comfortable talking to a small number of girls. I admired the girls who were sociable in their daily life and were able to communicate confidently with the opposite sex. Over my early school years, I was able to make a few male friends, but those friendships were based entirely on our collective bookish tendencies. The only male friend I had that was not considered to be a bookworm, was David John Leslie. Well, that’s what his grandma, Carol called him when he was in trouble anyway. The rest of us simply called him DJ. Carol was my grandmother Lisa’s best friend. They also lived in our neighborhood. One quick hop and a skip down a hill and we would be standing in front of their house. When DJ and I were younger, both of our grandfathers passed away.  Due to this occurrence, and our grandmother’s friendship, DJ and I would often be at each other’s houses multiple times a week. The women would cook and gossip while DJ and I watched TV or played on the front porch. DJ’s mom Cynthia was pretty non-existent in his life. She lived on the island but was rather estranged from her family. As for me, my mom and I lived with my grandmother. Mom worked a LOT, so I spent most of my time around my grandmother. 

Being a book-worm helped me get along well with my grandmother, because the woman was a worry-wart. Even at the age of 15, I was lucky if I had the opportunity to set one foot onto our front porch at all. Growing up, I hadn’t been allowed to go outside of its latched gate. I can blame my mother for this over-protectiveness. As a young girl, my mom, Ann Marie, had gotten pregnant at sixteen. My grandmother blamed the mishap on her spending too much time outside with the neighborhood boys. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on who was telling the story, she miscarried the baby. No one had ever told me the story to my face. I learned of these things while I had my head buried in a book. My ears would perk up on occasion when pieces of gossip were shared between the elders.

I would hear Ms. Carol say, “You must let Sammy go outside sometimes. All that reading will make her stupid. She needs to learn to deal with life outside of these walls and those books.” 

Grandma would reply “So she can end up pregnant like her mom at sixteen? I don’t need that trouble. Those books will save her from herself!” 

In reply Ms. Carol would suck her teeth so hard it would sound like “Schuuuppps”. 

It took everything in me not to snicker at their exchanges. I appreciated Ms. Carol’s bid to push me out into the world but I would’ve been too afraid to go anyway. Books were my safe haven. 

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Opening Scene: Introduces protagonists, antagonists, secondary character, tone, a core setting, and foreshadows primary conflict

The water was boiling over. Leila skidded over to the stove and lifted the pot of rolled grape leaves off the burner. She turned down the flame, returned the pot to the burner, and went back to layering phyllo dough for the baklawa.  

She was excited. This was her first professional catering gig. A wedding. The bride, Naya, was the daughter of her mother’s cousin’s sister-in-law, who was the niece of somebody Leila was supposed to know but couldn’t place, despite her mother’s elaborate descriptions. Anyway, she was Lebanese-American, the bride, like Leila. They were about the same age and Leila’s mother said she and Leila danced together at weddings when they were young girls, back when the Lebanese community of Cedar Grove was still small enough that the whole community would be invited to every wedding, no matter how distantly related. Leila remembered those weddings, dancing the dubka with the beautiful women and the dramatic men leading with their shiny stomping and swirling handkerchiefs and ululations, everyone shimmying in rhythm, pulsating within the acoustic landscape of the music. Boom boom tekka tekka boom tekka tek.

So long ago, that time period in Leila’s life. Some moments she could recall in vivid perfection, as though watching them on a home movie. Other moments revealed themselves like an old photo album, the images faded, torn or just plain missing. 

She did have one snippet of a memory of a girl at a wedding. Was this the same girl who is the bride of the wedding Leila was catering? 

Leila remembered she was dancing with her mom and sisters and cousins when she saw the girl sitting on a chair at one of the empty tables surrounding the edge of the dance floor. Leila noticed that her light blue dress looked scratchy and uncomfortable. The girl was staring at Leila and her sisters, watching them dance. 

“Go tell that girl to come dance with us,” Leila’s mom urged. “She wants to dance with us.”

“But, Mom…”

“Go on. Be nice. She wants to dance. I think that’s Huguette’s niece. You go, Leila. She looks like she’s your age. Go. Hurry, before this song ends.”

Leila was embarrassed. She hated when her mom made her do things like this. She didn’t want to stop dancing, and she didn’t want to bother this girl, and she certainly didn’t want to invite her to dance. Not because she didn’t want to dance with her, but because, what if the girl didn’t want to dance? 

Leila approached the girl. “Hi.” 

The girl smiled. She had a dimple in her right cheek. “Hi.”

“My mom wants to know if you want to come dance with me and my sisters.” 

The girl hesitated, “Do you want me to?”

Leila shrugged, “I don’t care. If you want to.” Then she added, “It’s fun.”

The girl stood up. “Okay.” They were the exact same height. They noticed this because their eyes locked and the shock of it made them giggle. 

 “Leila, habibti! I’m here!” Violette shouted from the back door, interrupting Leila’s memory. “Where do you want me to put these trays?” 

“Just set them on the shelf there for now,” Leila called back, wiping the flour from her hands and moving to greet her aunt. 

“Don’t stop,” Violette insisted as she entered the room. “I know you’re busy. Just tell me what you need me to do.” 

 Leila kissed her aunt on the cheek. “Do you want to start making the dumplings for the shish barak? I just finished the dough, and here’s the spiced meat mixture.” She placed a large bowl at the end of the table. 

Violette was already at the sink washing her hands. “Yes, yes. I love making the little hats,” Violette said, referring to the shape of the dumplings. She dried her hands and settled in at the table. 

“I just need to get the laban warming on the stove and then I’ll help. Let’s roll as many dumplings we can within the next hour, and then start folding the spinach pies.”

“So organized, einee!

“I just want everything to be perfect,” she said, dipping her pinky in the milky foam of the laban—homemade yoghurt— to test the temperature. It was still too cold.

“It will be. Your food is culinary ecstasy.”

“Oh, Violette.”

 “It’s true!”

 “Well. Thank you, then,” Leila said politely. 

Violette clicked her tongue. “Stop with the formalities and believe me. One day you’ll see. You’ll see your power.”

Leila didn’t know exactly what her Aunt Violette meant about power. Leila admitted to herself that she was a pretty good cook, especially based on people’s exclamations upon tasting her food. But, power? Indeed, Leila was cautious about her mood while cooking, just to be sure she only passed along love and good wishes. Still, she recalled more than a couple angry occasions stirring batter, and nobody started fighting upon eating her cake.

“So, Violette, tell me. How are you?” she asked as she continued stirring the laban so it wouldn’t scald.

“Fine, habibti, fine. Inshallah, I will stay fine. And, you! Look at you! Look at this! Leila’s Café and Catering Kitchen!” Violette dramatically announced the formal name of Leila’s kitchen, and swept her generous arms through the space, “Your lifelong dream!” 

Leila appraised the scene through Violette’s eyes: the exposed brick walls and copper pipes, the cedarwood countertop and domed oven, shelves lined with spices and stacked with French cookware, Turkish dinnerware, Mexican pottery. Leila had risked everything to purchase this building, and she felt grateful and terrified every day. 

 “I always told your mother that you would grow up to make us all proud,” Violette continued as she wrapped the dough around the meat. “Your first wedding! How is the bride? Has she been easy to work with?”

“She seems fine. Truthfully, we’ve only spoken on the phone. I was rather surprised that she didn’t want to discuss the menu face-to-face. She said her mother’s cousin gave her my number.”

“Yes, that was probably Najeebe.”

“She didn’t really seem to care what was on the menu. I’d suggest things, and she was basically like, ‘That’s fine’.”

“Well, you know her marriage has been arranged?”

“What?” Leila was shocked. “No, I didn’t know that. I didn’t know people still did that.”

“Well, I don’t actually know that they do in the U.S., and it’s definitely not as common in Lebanon as it used to be. But Lina was telling me that two years ago, in 2012, Naya’s family learned they have an old debt from three generations back with another family from our home village in Lebanon.”

“Really? How did they learn that?” Leila punched down the dough for the spinach pies and turned it out on the floured table. The dough was satisfyingly smooth. “And how does your sister Lina know that?” 

“Lina is very close to Naya’s aunt, Maria. Maria and her siblings were approached by the Hanna family from Lebanon. Maria told Lina the whole story. 

“The story of the debt?”

“Yes, and more importantly, the story of how Naya’s marriage came to be arranged. It was a surprise to everyone.”

“I’d love to hear it.”

“So, apparently, all those years ago in Ehden, Naya’s great, great-grandfather, Khalil Elias, who was a very wealthy man, made an agreement with the patriarch of the Hanna family, Sarkis. In exchange for rare Phoenician purple silk, aged cedarwood, and marble blocks, Khalil Elias promised to marry off his first-born granddaughter-- his son’s daughter--who was five years old at the time, to Sarkis Hanna’s first-born grandson, who was not yet born, as payment. Sarkis didn’t like this proposal at all because, while it was true that his son’s wife was pregnant and would be giving birth any day now, the marriage would be far away. He wanted his payment sooner, and if not sooner, then bigger.  So, to fatten the deal, Khalil added the caveat that upon their marriage, they could own and live in the cedar and marble house he was building with the materials he was purchasing from Sarkis. Khalil Elias was a master stone carver and wood artist with a nationally respected reputation in Lebanon. Sarkis Hanna knew the house would be beautiful and of great value, and so he happily agreed to the deal. Both men felt the fairness and the value of the trade, but neither man anticipated that the newborn would be a girl--as were the next four babies after that. Sarkis Hanna’s only son fathered five daughters and not a single son. One month after his fifth granddaughter was born, Sarkis Hanna died. Khalil Elias wondered if the deal and the debt died with him. The five Hanna daughters matured and married and most relocated to the villages of their respective husbands.  The deal seemed to have been long forgotten.”

“So then, what happened?” asked Leila, realizing she had stopped stirring the laban and almost scorched it. Violette handed her the trays of shish barak dumplings, which Leila tumbled into the laban with crushed mint and garlic and gently resumed stirring. “But first, tell me, why would Khalil give away the house he’s building with the materials he’s purchasing. How does he get his profit?”

“From the Phoenician silk. It’s very rare, very precious. The fact that it was purple means it was hand-dyed Tyrian purple. Tyrian dye was used by the earliest Phoenicians and has always been greatly prized because the dye doesn’t fade, rather it deepens with age. Tyrian dyed silks were reserved only for royalty. Any Tyrian dyed Phoenician silks that remain in modern times are not only rare, but very expensive. Khalil Elias was obviously a shrewd businessman, as well as a bit of an historian. This silk would likely have been worth more than double the value of the cedarwood and marble combined.” Violette looked up from rolling the dough. “Do you want these pies folded into crescents or triangles?” she asked, as she pinched a bouquet of spinach dripping lemon and oil and placed it onto the small, flat circle of dough. 

“Triangles,” Leila answered. “Always triangles.” 

“Yes, I like triangles best, too. They remind me of my Sitti’s spinach pies,” she mused, folding the bottom third of the dough over the spinach filling, then closing in the sides of dough like curtains, pressing together the edges between her thumb and fingertips, making a point at the top, then a center ridge traveling down and outward like a Mercedes logo.

“But, anyway, I got sidetracked. Let’s see,” Violette continued, “so Sarkis Hanna’s oldest granddaughter, Maya—”

“Wait. Who?”

“Maya. She’s the granddaughter who everyone was expecting to be born a boy and marry the rich Khalil Elias’s granddaughter.”

“Oh, right,” said Leila, sliding a tray of spinach pies into the oven.

“Maya grew up being teased and shamed about how she was supposed to be a boy and stabilize the family’s wealth, but was born a girl and cost the family riches. The teasing turned to taunting, and the taunting became entrenched as the narrative of disappointment, the belief everybody held, including Maya, that Maya would forever disappoint her family, as she had from the day she was born, and that she would never bring wealth upon her family, only debt. As it was, Maya fell in love with a brick-layer, the son of a poor, hard-working family. Maya’s father forbade her to marry the brick-layer, claiming she had already brought enough disgrace upon the family. In tears and defiance, Maya ran away with the brick-layer to a neighboring village and they were married in a small stone chapel by the resident friar.”

“It’s like a storybook romance,” murmured Leila as she brushed the tops of the unbaked spinach pies with olive oil, “or is it a tragedy?”

“Well, it wasn’t all love and bliss. And making it even harder were the recurring angry dream visits from her deceased grandfather, the patriarch Sarkis Hanna, who bellowed soundlessly at Maya from a black void, demanding his payment for the silk, stone, and cedar; warning her that he expected his payment of the house that Khalil Elias owed him and wouldn’t rest in peace until the deal was made right. His anger scared her. Sucking the air with him into the void, he would vanish, jolting Maya awake in tears. At first, the dreams—on top of her feelings of family rejection and displacement— took a toll on her energy. But in true Maya fashion, she transformed that energy so that it fueled her. She became more resolute with each dream visit that she would make the Khalil Elias family pay their debt and also redeem herself to her family. She rationalized that if she gave birth to a son, he in turn could marry an Elias to make good on the deal with that family and simultaneously make things right in her own. ‘After all,’ she often told her daughters, ‘he would be the first son born in the family line from the time the deal was made. He would be the first son of the first daughter of the first son of Sarkis Hanna. He would be Sarkis Hanna’s great-grandson.’ And then, one day, at age 49 and with great surprise, Maya realized she was pregnant, and to her even greater surprise, she gave birth to a boy.” 

 “Whoaaa,” Leila exclaimed.

“Yes. That was Sayed, the groom, born in 1978. Maya gathered up her family and boldly returned to her village to announce that the Hanna family would finally earn their payment.”

“But,” said Leila, “how did the Hanna’s know that the Elias’s were going to agree to the deal after all these years? And how was it decided that Naya would become the bride? 

Violette looked at the trays and trays of folded spinach pie triangles. “There is a slow art to stories, just like the making of Lebanese food. Just as we respect the folding of each spinach pie, we must respect the unfolding of each story.”

Leila went to the stove to stir the laban. “I suppose we should,” she murmured into the pot. “I just cannot believe my first catering gig is for an arranged marriage. This does not feel good. This does not feel good at all.”

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“Get back from that window!” Mia Langford cried, racing across the room, to pull her sister away, but the gruesome spectacle passing in the street below held both Mia and Lottie in its horrific thrall. A mob of rag-tag patriots, wielding torches, surrounded a donkey cart carrying their latest victims, and it was unsure if either man would live after having been given a suit of boiling tar and feathers.

Not many did.

Mia gulped back the bile that rose in her throat.

How soon would they be coming for us?

The chants grew louder, attracting more and more men to the rebellious parade, some bringing drums and pipes to accompany their treason. Clouds of smoke from the pine torches tarnished the dusky sky sending plumes of acrid smoke into the night.

Mia prayed the mob would pass her home untouched. Other loyalists had not been so lucky, but as a woman alone she’d hoped to stay above politics. In her bones, now, she realized that was not going to be possible.

The noise drew the slaves, Rosie, Cicero and Tom like a magnet, to the other window of the parlor.

“Oh dear, oh dear, oh day,” Cicero mumbled, shaking a wooly, white head. He leaned over Rosie who held Tom beside her, to get a better look.

“Why are they doing this?” Lottie asked, her blue eyes wide.

“They want independence.” And as Mia uttered the word, a missile flew from the hand of a straggler shattering a window in the carriage house.

“Now they’ve gone too far!” Cicero bellowed breaking away from Rose and Tom.

“No, Cic…” Mia raced to stop him. “They’ll kill you.” She caught his arm. His pale blue eyes locked on her, intense against his dark skin.

“I’m here to protect y’all and I’ll be damned if those… those…” He was seething. The breath coming in bursts between his teeth.

“You can’t.” Rosie joined Mia on the other side, her voice breaking. “We need you more than we need you dead,” she pleaded.

Cicero tugged ineffectually, the fight in him gone at Rosie’s words.

“They’ve passed.” Mia said, glancing back at the window, releasing Cicero’s arm. “They can’t do much more damage here.” Anger held her so tightly it made her stomach churn.

Why did father leave them here on the brink of a revolution with only and old man and a boy to protect us?

Lottie sobbed softly, still gazing out the window as the raucous jeers and barks faded.

“Come away now, Lottie,” Mia said. She turned to young Tom. “Run down to the stables and tell Henry to patch that window up till I can get a pane of glass. And look sharp before you go!”

“It’s Governor Campbell’s fault,” Lottie sobbed. “Ever since he left, the balls and parties stopped and those horrible men were let loose.” She waived toward the street, her lips turned down in confused anguish.

Mia patted the turquoise silk couch, inviting Lottie to join her. She took a deep breath hoping to calm the agitation roiling inside her. “Rosie, would you bring some tea?”

Rosie nodded, taking Cicero with her.

Lottie flopped down on the delicate sofa beside Mia and swiped the tears from her eyes. “I don’t want any of that dreadful tea, I want real tea!”

“Neither do I, but that’s all we have now.”

Charleston’s troubles exploded when that gutless poltroon, Governor Campbell fled in September. The city throbbed in fear, but Mia refused to be cowed. Her father had turned over the reins of Langford Shipping before leaving for the Caribbean, and Mia found the taste of power far more intoxicating than the rum distilled from her families’ plantations.

Now she was paying the price for her ambition. Already she’d sent little Tabitha and Mamma Bea out to Oak Grove Plantation for their safety, but it broke her heart to see Tabby’s empty cot each morning. If only Farley were still alive, he’d know what to do. But Tabitha’s father had been cold dead for half a decade now, his ship, Bonaventure, sunk off Bartuga in a hurricane.

After a time, Lottie calmed down to the occasional sniffle and was sipping the heavily sugared raspberry leaf tea Rosie prepared for her while Mia opted for something stronger. The contraband French brandy burned its way to her empty stomach warming her with a false sense of security. Indignation rose licking the flames of her anger once again.

 “I heard they were traitors,” Lottie said, her cornflower blue eyes sought reassurance.

“Traitors? Maybe. But they were human beings. That mob were rebels. Patriots they call themselves.” Mia spat the word out. “Murderers I call them. No one deserves such brutality.”

She returned to the window across from Rosie, and pulled the curtain back. Tradd Street was quiet now, except for the occasional jingle of a harness or the rumble of cartwheels over cobblestones. St. Michael’s bells pealed six times denoting the hour and it was as if a sudden storm had passed with little incident leaving the streets slick with rain, it’s only trace.

Despite the fire crackling in the hearth, Mia hugged her arms around her as if to ward off a coming chill. What was it the rebels wanted? She’d told Lottie independence but was it simply that? Were they crying out for something unattainable, its absence even unknowable? What made their hearts yearn for something so intangible they were willing to sacrifice life and limb?

Those men with their shouts of liberty and freedom, were blind to the hypocrisy surrounding them. She glanced over to Rosie, gazing into the street and wondered about the inhumanity that blinded them, that allowed them to rest confident in the poison rising from this very soil infecting their souls.



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My story is non-fiction and tells of the kidnapping of my children. This excerpt takes place partway through my story. Not understanding at the time that I was dealing with the same judicial circuit that tried to cover up Ahmaud Arbery's murder (even the same DA), I struggled to make sense of the injustice that had been heaped upon my little family. 


     I fall upon my Bible with all the anger and desperation I can muster. I yank out page after page after page. Then, still not satisfied, I tear them into ever smaller pieces, reducing Genesis to mere confetti. The miracles of Moses flit among the marsh grasses, merging with the Gospel of Luke and the Wisdom of Solomon. Finally, with my strength depleted, I rise from the ground and walk away, leaving the remains of my beloved book beneath the mossy oaks of Paradise Island. I’m heartbroken, exhausted and breathless from the sobs that wrack my body. It seems a horrible irony that my moment of anguish takes place against the backdrop of such serene beauty. The birds continue to sing while the sun warms the tears dripping from my chin. I look to the sky, annoyed. No matter how fervently I pray and plead, I can not force God’s hand to return my children to me. Nearly two years have gone by, and I just can’t shake the feeling that I’ve been betrayed me in the worst possible way.

     So I express my anger the only way I know how. By ripping up those biblical promises that are apparently meant for other people. And if God had been standing in front of me, I’d have taken a swing at Him. I slink to the car defeated. God didn’t care about me. I had begged Him to protect us. To give us justice and keep to us safe. I flop into the driver’s seat and pull away from Paradise Island. But when I reach the stop sign, instead of turning toward home, I make a U-turn. I can’t leave my Bible lying in the dirt. Even though I had no intention of ever returning for it, I just can’t bear the thought of going through with it. Its almost as though I love God in spite of myself. I tromp back across the marsh and tenderly collect every single scrap of paper. Once I have gathered all the pieces, I place them in a small box and lay them in the backseat of the car. Now I’m doubly defeated. Once by the circumstances that led me there, and defeated a second time by my love for the One who has allowed it. My faith tauntes me. But where else can I go? He is my God. And I can't separate myself from the Spirit no more than I can part ways with my own soul. 

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May 2019

Dublin, Ireland 

Sweat broke out at the back of her neck. She tucked a loose strand of hair behind her left ear. People needed to see her face, not just hear her voice. The lights were invasive — fitting for a public reckoning or a root canal. Theresa O’Sullivan steeled herself as the producer said, “Three, two, one.”

Everyone always talked about the glass ceiling. No one talked about the rock bottom that women hit when they fell. Men bounced back from scandals as if on trampolines: They landed new jobs, new wives, new prospects. There was no soft place for women to land. Their futures shattered on mirrors that only reflected their mistakes. 

Tess had tumbled backwards into a story that was not her own. It was over. She knew that. But she could put a crack in that rock bottom if she fell hard enough. Maybe, there was something softer underneath for the next woman. Because there would always be a next woman. 


April 2019 

Cambridge, Massachusetts


Tess walked down the steps to the inbound platform of the Red Line. An unexpected downpour had left her soaked to the bone in spring rain, her frozen fingers fumbling to grab something from the pocket of her wool coat. She dropped a smile and a wet five-dollar bill in front of the bongo player who set the rhythm of the Harvard Square commute. He never seemed to age, even as students had come and gone year after year. Tess looked like one of them — a graduate student polishing up an academic pedigree on her parents' penny — but she and the bongo player knew otherwise. 

Twenty years ago, she began commuting to Cambridge Day School as a scholarship student from South Boston. Once she had enrolled in Boston College as a freshman, those daily trips had become biweekly visits to see her childhood best friend, and a boyfriend, at Harvard University. 

In the last few years, Tess had only ventured to that side of the Charles River for her work as a freelance food and culture journalist. That day, she walked past large Victorian homes that gave way to humble triple-deckers — unfussy tenement buildings with flat roofs, three floors, three decks and aluminum siding — on her way to report on a new restaurant. Her raw hands scribbled the words in a damp notebook as they flooded her mind.

Boston native Ryan Tolley is opening a new restaurant, BSTN (pronounced B-S-T-N), in the space once occupied by beloved pub Monaghan’s, which closed in January after 98 years in operation. BSTN will serve up nostalgic, New England dishes for a new generation in a sleek gastropub with contemporary bells and whistles. Here, Tolley will showcase skills he honed as a chef de cuisine at Michelin-star-winning Stripes. Locals may disagree about whether openings like this one herald a renaissance for Boston’s dining scene or a death nail for local, family-owned businesses. Either way, the dishes are worth the trek.

The young chef, a redhead who had cut his teeth at the city’s best restaurants, had made Tess’ work obligation feel like a first date. The chef ate the signature dishes with her at a small table by the window, dropping glances her way as she savored each course: Littleneck clam chowder with pancetta served before sous-vide Sunday pot roast on a bed of braised parsnips and Boston cream pie with maple ganache. He had rendered culinary déjà vu with perfection, and she would have fawned over the meal if not for the awkward conversation, and the context.

Tess and the chef were both from working-class Irish Catholic families. Their acquaintances and relatives made up a tangled web that crossed the river and back too many times to count, and they found themselves connected in more ways than one. He ratcheted up his local credentials as he spelled out the changes he had made to the former watering hole where Tess used to gobble up cheeseburgers on Wednesdays with her ex-boyfriend. Where they came from, there was nothing worse than seeming like a sellout. 

When the chef saw Tess glancing around the dining room, he said sheepishly, “Did you see the mural of Boston on the building’s wall? We designed everything to get people to post photos online. That’s how the press works these days according to the investors. You have to make everything . . . ‘consumable for an online audience.’” He used air quotations, and Tess gave him a limp nod. That certainly wasn’t something to tell a print journalist whose livelihood depended on people picking up a local newspaper every morning.

The shriek of the train as it neared the station interrupted her thoughts. She looked up and at the campaign posters taped to the wall behind the train tracks. The man on the poster’s eyes were bright blue, and Tess thought the dimple on his left cheek had deepened over time. She wondered if he knew their haunt had been replaced by the restaurant she had just visited, and if that loss had summoned a pang of grief in him, too. Tess walked onto the inbound train and could see straight into the outbound train, which had pulled up next to it. His blue eyes startled her. They weren’t supposed to be there.

The real man had replaced his image on the poster. He sat on the outbound train with his long legs too wide, a subtle nod to the entitlement of someone used to taking up a lot of space. He wore pink sneakers. At six-foot-five, the former Ivy League rower cast a long shadow. She had never escaped it.


His gaze locked into hers with the immediacy of a lightning bolt as the train doors slammed behind her. Rather than follow him with her eyes as the train pulled away — rubbernecking straight into her past — she froze, forgetting to blink. It brought her right back to the end. 

Once he was out of view, she pinched the bridge of her nose and calculated her missteps. She had avoided all run-ins for years with unceasing vigilance. No post-work beers at his favorite dives, no contact with mutual friends, no work projects that brought her too close to his home in the suburbs. In truth, if anyone had known how small she had made her world to avoid him, they would have sent her straight to a shrink. 

Tess couldn’t help knowing the broad strokes of his rise, even though she had avoided press coverage of him with religious fervor. His image and name jumped out at her as she turned the pages of The Boston Globe every day, and she picked up the gist from headlines alone. Tim had become a household name after leading a filibuster to protect women’s reproductive rights as a junior member of the House of Representatives. Political analysts had anointed him “the next JFK” in his lucky pink New Balance sneakers. He began a “movement” among progressive men who wore the shoes to show solidarity with women’s rights and the labor movement. 

Since leading the filibuster, Tim had leveraged his rising star status to run as a Democrat in a special election against the Republican candidate, Fred Felder, for the United States Senate. In a deep blue state where even moderate Republican Senators were few and far between, his ascension to the role was almost guaranteed. 

Tess knew Tim had always hated going underground, but he must have been doing it for the story. No doubt his team was in a black car while he hoofed it on the train. She imagined women snapping selfies with him on the Red Line, positioning themselves to catch both his real face and a campaign poster in the background. She thought of the men in pink sneakers posing alongside him for a photograph — the same men, probably, who never gave up their seats on the train for old people or pregnant women. 

She swayed as the train jerked across the Salt-and-Pepper bridge. Choppy water churned toward her under a wall of rain. She couldn’t see the city coming into view, but she knew that the gold dome of the State House, the tidy brownstones of Beacon Hill and the trees on the Esplanade were ahead of her. Soon, she would be back with a cup of tea in her apartment on Telegraph Hill, far away from Tim Butler and the memories that had never left. Her hands reached for her phone as a text from a local number popped into view. 


She couldn’t forget that number — not if her sanity depended on it.

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This excerpt is from the beginning of my first novella, Beautydance (still in the process of reworking it for my thesis). Opening scene introduces three main characters (protagonists, I guess: myself, Bob, and Gram), shares a core setting (Gram's cottage home in Florida), and foreshadows one of the story's main conflicts (brother's illness).


Oh, you know what I’m talking about, she says, laughing her way through saying it. 

I really don’t, I say, laughing with her. 

Tennessee, that’s where we are, Gram kicking her feet out and rocking back in her pastel-colored dining room chair, the cushiony one that looks like Florida, rosy lips stretching to show all her teeth and eyes closing tight cause when she laughs like this, she can't handle herself.  

My stomach does a little lurch, dreading that part of the future when her round body and bright eyes will relax completely and there will be no more of this sound. I think about it pretty often, what’s going to happen, because of what’s already happened. So I pay attention when she laughs; look down for a second; shut my eyes; try to record it all in my head. 

I’m TALKING about the time you and Bob wanted to get asked to that little neighbor's birthday party ‘cross the street from my house, remember that?  

Yeah, I remember that. 

And do you remember what I told you to DO, her last “do” going up and getting loud, ending kind of punchy. 

I smile. Yeah, I say, changing the way my legs are crossed. You told us to go outside and look bored. You said we should stand in the front yard and walk around for a while, kick our feet and try to look sad.  

We did: I kicked up and down the tall bleached grass that day, barefoot in Gram's old Florida cottage yard. I looked this way and that down her long skinny road, pretending to be checking for people and cars, while my brother Bobby, a bony, bald-headed child, stood and stared at the neighbor’s house openly. I knew we were supposed to look everywhere but there, the place we wanted to look at, but Bob never beat around the bush about anything, and I couldn’t tell him what to do. You try to do that and he would scream, darken his eyes and shake his fists and say your name like a curse you’ll never get lifted.  

Gram’s laughing and nodding now, enjoying the feel of conspiring all over again. Worked, didn’t it?  

Yep, it worked, I say. We had a blast. That day was so fun.  

Oh, you scared me to DEATH when you went off in the DEEP end of the pool. You remember that, Rosebud?  

Shaking her head.  

I specifically told you to stay in the shallow part, but you just HAD to go off in the deep end! Shaking, shaking. 

She wants me to go on and on about the pool, the party, Bob, the whole thing, how we were standing there kicking until a middle-aged neighbor lady with sure eyes and a slight smile came to stand at the edge of the yard. I’d watched her walk toward us with her arms swinging lightly, the toe of her moving foot pointing up each time she took another step. While my mom would say she was fat, the lady looked good to me: healthy, strong, like she knew how to use her weight, and happy too. I think it was her quiet strength and easy smile that I noticed and liked the most.  

We’re having a little party in the backyard for my daughter’s birthday today, she said. Would you two like to come over and join us? She nodded up and down encouragingly, looking from me to Bob, staying on Bob a little longer. Do you both have swimsuits?  

I don’t think I even said anything back to her, just nodded a few times in disbelief. Gram was right: look bored and people will notice you, will be kind to you, will invite you to things and help you out and show you a really nice time. That’s helped me out over the years, the “be shy, look small” thing, but it also made me put off being brave and extending those friendly invites myself.  

As far as getting to the pool party, boredom was perfect bait. We ran across the street barefoot, me quick as a bear and Bob in his slow way. In the backyard, he lingered at the snack table as party hat boys and girls grabbed things: toothpicks and grapes and cheese curls in white styrofoam bowls you could punch a fork through and spray-cheese cracker plates with chips that had a speckled dip beside them. I watched Bob stand there with his own small plate. It was shaking a little though he was holding it so carefully in his left hand while looking at the table considering things, everything. He looked content and everyone blurred past him, too busy to bother him, so I turned around, chewing on a pretzel that had lost its crisp. I headed towards the pool.  

The pool: The easy side I knew, the big side? 

I knew what I was supposed to do and knew that Gram wasn’t watching me, but she would cross that warm street barefoot herself, probably doing it now, checking for people and cars, so I went for it feet first, knees up, and eyes clenched closed, feeling nothing but beautiful cold on a warm summer body for the first two seconds. 

Wonderful. Then, pain in my nose, thousands of silver pin pricks on the weird inside and the sick smell of chlorine. I remember the sound of my own breath coming up with the kicking and then my body dipping a little but coming back up again with more kicking. I made my arms into windmills, figuring out how to keep my head above the blue so my breathing could steady, steady; after a few seconds of not-dipping, I was steady. And the magic. My feet touched nothing here. I was more than half in and a little bit out, ready for Gram to see. 

Rosebud! she hissed, right on cue and loud enough just for me. WHAT are you DOING! I tilted my head back and found a watery and angry Gram putting me in shadow, high in the sky and trees: pouty lips, squinty eyes, fisty. She never used her fists but she’d make ‘em, and you’d better not laugh when she did. 

Get over to the side and get out now—RIGHT, NOW, she stomped. Come on, girly; OUT!  

I don’t think I said anything then either, chlorine water making my lips slick and my smile slippy as I kicked and moved my arms around, wild, no bottom or ceiling, in the big. 


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Opening, introduces protaganist, first setting, conflict and wound      

         A slender, harried woman in a tailored career gal navy suit emerges from the Number 6 Lexington Avenue subway into the main concourse of Grand Central Station tugging a young boy’s hand. Weaving expertly through the throngs of rushing morning commuters she clutches the recalcitrant child steering him like a puppy who is not permitted to stop and sniff the tantalizing aromas of the sidewalk. 

“Mommy, look!  Thtars on the roof.”

Jenny would like to stop and explain the amazing star map of the night sky on the celestial ceiling of the landmark and explain the battle to save the dome as an allegory of good and evil. She even knows the inner details of what became an historic case argued before the Supreme Court and championed by Jackie Onassis and her former boss, but the saga of saving the architectural treasure is far too long for today. Today determines everything.  Today decides her future and they are late.

Instead, she pulls harder until they wash out onto East 42nd Street. “Please Aidan, hurry.  Let’s play a game.  Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.  Step on a line break your father’s spine. Walk forward and jump over the lines so you don’t hurt me and daddy.”

Aidan seriously considers the mottled sidewalk ahead and begins twisting and hopping to avoid the forbidden cracks, propelling himself forward, barely missing startled commuters, all the while zealously attached to his mother’s hand. 

“Ouch, you broke it,” gasps Jenny, pretending to fall to the ground as Aidan stomps decisively on a ragged crack in the sidewalk just in front of their destination. 

Aidan laughs in delight. “Leth do it again, I promith I won’t break you thith time.”

 “No way, my back will collapse and besides we’re here.  Now remember what I told you last night. Sit still, be polite and answer all the questions with your most wonderful words.  If you do I’ll get you any action figure you want.  Can you do that for me?”


“And please honey, try to answer with more than one word.  They give extra points for extra words.  Like in basketball, you get more points for more baskets.  Think of each word as a basket.”

He gazes up at her but gives a no word answer.

“Okay, let’s go.”  A 36-story tower with a spectacular three-story tall granite carving above the glass entranceway proclaiming THE NEWS looms above them.  The relief depicts masses of people, trees and the phrase, “He Made so Many of Them.” Menacing striped rectangular towers of gray and black dominate the remaining skyward stretch.

Jenny thinks that the quote eerily sums up her cause for panic while she squares her shoulders, breathes deeply, pushes open the heavy brass entrance and spills into the building.

Erupting from the lobby’s center like a magical apparition is an enormous spinning globe of the earth. Aidan escapes her grip and dashes towards the rotating sphere, stopped only by the ironwork fence surrounding the planet. “Mommy, ith the world! Ith Thuperman’th building!”

Holy Daily Planet, he’s right. The rotunda is a sci-fi fantasy come to life.  All that’s missing is the time travel lever that will bring them back to the age of dinosaurs.  Regrettably, awestruck as they are, an exploration of the globe, compass and meteorological instruments in this hall of wonders is a derailment she cannot afford.

Jenny regrets that she is too often the warden, constantly calling on her exuberant, curious boy to hurry, to move along, to wait until later. There’s time to wallow in the wonder that surrounds them but today is not the day to switch to fly a kite mode as here she is dragging her son into the Educational Research Bureau’s elaborate offices so Aiden can take the entrance test to private Manhattan kindergartens; the first rung of an ever-accelerating ladder that Jenny has spent months positioning into place.  She has doubts and even twinges of egalitarian guilt about this path, but her qualms are drowned by her fears.  Fear that Aidan will sink in an overcrowded public school system. Fear that he will lose his curiosity and eagerness to learn about everything he sees. And, mostly, perhaps primarily, fear of losing her hard-earned life in the city she dreamed of living in since she was six and marveled at a holiday bedecked Rockefeller Center in an otherwise leaden childhood.

Jenny has succeeded in New York, has a great job, met her husband here, had her children here and desperately wants to stay.  But, if Aidan cannot get into a school that nurtures, has some sports and is academic Mike will win.  Her husband is clamoring to move to any place that has green outside his front door.  He craves open spaces, fireflies, and beers by a barbecue with friendly neighbors.  He pictures catches on the lawn with Aidan and bike rides with Grace in a bucket seat.  He yearns for a separation from the frenetic pace of work and the home he comes home to afterward.  Her arguments about commuting time, childcare and lack of culture take a back burner to his idyllic vision.   

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Assignment Part III

Opening Scene: Introduces protagonist, secondary characters, a setting, tone and foreshadows primary conflict.

The dark, smoky underground subway stairwell smelled of gasoline and burning coal. The air he breathed scratched his throat, stinging his teary eyes. He reached for the pocket outside his backpack and gripped his water bottle in need of a drink. But as he brought it around to his mouth the short succession of coughs busied his mouth.  Fumes stung his nostrils and throat as he gasped for more breaths. Rays of sunlight glistened above him. Attempting to stand up from the charred staircase leading up to the street, he suddenly fell back with a dizzying thud. Blurry-eyed and dazed, he heard his shatter proof water bottle slip away, rolling down the stairs, metal against cement, soon to be a part someone else’s destiny.

When his eyes opened, affixed he saw the white ceiling of his room. The beige bedspread covers thrown off; his own body heat enveloped him. Daylight shown into the room. He rose to a sitting position with sweaty palms, mopping back the wispy hair from his damp forehead.  

Another bad dream. He fell back, dropping his head on the pillow and sighed in relief. 

 “Don’t take the subway today, Rita.” 

Jay stood with his back to her at the sink, scrubbing soapy suds onto a Corelle cereal bowl. He turned his head slightly to glance at her hurrying into the kitchen, swinging her chutney green Tumi backpack onto her shoulder, the ‘Your Mind Matters’ hand sanitizer holder swaying with momentum.   

“What now, Jay? Don’t tell me you had another daydream about some subway bombing or something?” 

He shut off the water faucet, turned and stared momentarily.

Wait how did she know?  Shaking his head to clear the coincidence. 

“You have to believe me. I’m serious. Find another route. Take the bus,” he insisted.

“But what is going on in the subway? You know it's the quickest way into work and I am already running late.” She pleaded with a grimace. “You’re too much!”

“Rita, why don’t you trust my intuitions?” He had flung off his apron, walked towards her and looked at her eye to eye, waiting for her reply eagerly. “It’s just not safe for you!”  Being intentionally dramatic.

“I can’t be late today,” she reasoned, turning to get her Nalgene bottle.  “I promise to get ready early tomorrow so I can figure out another route to work. Okay?”

And she rushed out of the kitchen fluttering a stack of graded papers on the round glass breakfast table by the kitchen door. The front door had slammed shut by the time Jay made it to the foyer in attempt to try again.

Rita’s sixth sense touting husband gets her thinking almost every day. Why do his little insights and daydreams about what terrible thing is going happen bother me so much?  She thought with a slight shrug.

Stop Rita, clear these thoughts from your mind.  Focus on Andy and Dina -and their marital issues. Get yourself together. 

After separating from his abusive, dominating wife and leaving his Jersey City home, Dr Rita Kapoor Kaur’s new client Andy, moved into a moderately sized studio apartment in the heart of Rego Park on Queens Boulevard.  It had been two weeks now. Soft spoken and unassuming, with the mind for mathematics and logic, Andy had finally listened to an old college friend about seeing a counselor. 

Rita’s sessions with him began, relying on cognitive behavioral therapy to rationalize negative thoughts. Andy dreamed of start life anew, living for himself without the back lash and trauma of emotional abuse.

“Good morning, Andy. How did your week go?”  began Rita smiling enthusiastically as she welcomed him into her office, then taking a seat and turning towards him as he stretched back into a recliner.

“Morning doctor. It went well. Much more peaceful now. You know, without Dina around.” he calmly replied with a soft grin and a pause. “But you'll never believe what I read about you on our global news chat.  I am amazed at the lies! Andy chuckled.

“Really? About me?” Rita’s attention heightened as she briefly held her breath. Her heart skipped a beat as she tried to seem indifferent. 

“Were you ever married to a multimillionaire who was convicted of fraudulent dealings? “ Andy asked incredulously, amused at the ridiculous idea but curious all the same. 

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Below are the opening pages of my novel. Since it contains no dialog, I have added another section from later in the novel.



The heavy fog, late in leaving that morning, nearly obscured the shadowy figure making its way towards the center of the Golden Gate Bridge. Although she passed just a few feet from the Sunday traffic, the small woman went unnoticed by the drivers streaming towards Marin County. Clad in a fashionable running suit and sensible shoes, she strode briskly along the pedestrian walkway. Her petite frame, firm gait, and bright red hair belied her nearly seventy years.

After she’d passed the south tower, she paused and turned eastward towards Oakland first, then Berkeley, Albany, and, finally, Richmond. Slowly, she removed her shoes and set her backpack on the steel grating. Then she took a small object from her pack: a tin cup, tarnished from age and use. Standing at the guardrail, the woman lifted the old cup to her face and tenderly kissed it.  Holding it above her head with both hands, like a priest lifting the chalice for a blessing, she let the winds carry the man’s spirit higher and higher above the bridge in a swirl of ash. The gulls swarmed, imitating the angels.

Then, she leaned over the rail, offering the empty cup to the waves, 220 feet below.

Four Seconds…

The time it takes a human jumper to reach the roiling waters of San Francisco Bay.

Four Seconds…

The time it took that little cup to slip beneath the waves.

Four Seconds…

More than enough time to travel back four decades.



            Most mornings, as Ruby Parker stepped off the bus to begin her shift at Richmond Yard No. 2, she could just see the tip of the Golden Gate Bridge emerging from a fog-shrouded San Francisco Bay; and some days, she believed she could hear its ghosts: the souls of those desperate jumpers seeking an end to an unlivable life, and the spirits of those thousands more who sailed beneath that span to a war from which they never returned.

From the outside, Ruby looked like any of  the other young women who got off the bus along with her: denim coveralls, sturdy work shirt, a bandana hiding her bright red hair, lunch pail clutched in her left hand. From the outside, she looked like any of the thousands who worked for Henry J. Kaiser building ships to help the Allies win the war. She looked like she could have come off an assembly line similar to the ships she helped build.

But on the inside, it was a different story.  Ruby was a circus girl. If you asked, she would tell you about riding the elephant on her daddy’s circus when she was only four. And of swinging between trapeze rings a few years later. And she might tell you about her wonderful life on her family’s ranch in the wintertime. And perhaps she’d even tell you about the death of the circus, and of her daddy, during the Great Depression a few years before. And why she’d left the Texas Hill Country for the Bay Area.

But she wouldn’t tell you that other thing, the one buried down so deep inside that she didn’t even know about it herself.

When Ruby had started working at the shipyard, she had been a young woman with a past.

And a future.

And she was just about to lose both.









“William, can you tell me what happened? Why did I  leave the ranch? I want to know about my daddy and mama.”

“I can, much as I know, but it’s sad. Miss Susan said not to tell you until you asked. She said that’s how we’d know you were ready to hear it. And she said that after I started to tell you about it, you’d likely start rememberin’ it yourself, bad as it might be.”

“I understand. I think I’m ready.”

“Ole Boss, he just got worse and worse. Spent his whole day, coughin’ up that blood. Doctor come out a couple of times. Said there wadn’t nothin’ he could do. Just keep him  comf’tible as possible.  

It was a cold November day when he went. Day even the devil didn’t want to be outside.”

“And it was raining, wasn’t it?” Ruby asked.

“It was. You startin’ to remember?”

“I found him, didn’t I? I found my daddy, and I screamed for you. And I was holding him when you got there. And I didn’t care if I caught his TB or not. Maybe I even wanted to. It didn’t seem like life made any sense anymore. What happened then?”

“It was too muddy for the undertaker to bring out his hearse, so we bathed and wrapped him ourselves, and I made a coffin for him. The next day Richard and I dug the grave, right next to his little cabin. We did get a preacher to come out and say some prayers, and then we put him in the ground.”

“And then?”

“You sure you want to hear this?”

“I can handle it. Don’t leave anything out.”

“Well, like you said it was rainin’ like there was no tomorrow and, soon as we buried your daddy, we all hurried inside to dry out.  Your mama was holed up in the back of the house, ever since she heard he was dead. She never even come out to see him. And the funniest thing; as soon as we had covered him up that elephant of his, Lucy, started bellowin’ loud, and cryin’ like, like she knew or somethin’.  And it went on for hours.

By the time it was dark, the rain had gotten lots worse; seemed like it was comin’ in sideways. Soon as he could, the preacher had left so it was just you and me, and Richard,  and Sylvia, and your mama. It was the first night I stayed in the house. I just did and nobody said nuthin’ about it.  We all just sat there, eatin’ milk and cornbread, listenin’ to the rain, and that elephant cryin’. I fell asleep in that chair your daddy used to rock in ‘fore he took sick.

It was you woke me up the next morning, askin’ me to take you down to your daddy’s grave. You said we had forgotten to put flowers on it.  When we got there….”

“Stop,” screamed Ruby. “I know. The rain had been so bad that it had washed him out of his grave. The hole was full of water and the coffin was just bobbing at the top like a raft.   And we had to dig another hole, higher up. And we tied ropes around the coffin and had Lucy drag it up the hill. And you said a prayer, I remember, before we covered him up a second time.”





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