Today on the site, we’re revealing an excerpt from the upcoming Queen of All by Anya Josephs, an #ownvoices YA fantasy with a plus-size lesbian protagonist releasing from Zenith Press on June 8th. Here’s the story:
Jena lives on her family’s struggling farm and in her beautiful friend Sisi’s shadow. She’s not interested in Sisi’s plans to uncover the Kingdom’s darkest secrets: the suppression of magic, and the crown prince’s systemic murder of those who practice it.
Jena only wants to keep a secret of her own—her changing feelings for Sisi. Yet when a letter arrives summoning Sisi to the royal Midwinter Ball, Jena has no choice but to follow her into a new world of mystery and danger.
Sisi falls into a perilous romance with the very crown prince she despises. Desperate to save her, Jena searches for answers in the halls of the palace and in the ancient texts of its library.
She discovers that the chance to save her friend, and their world, lies in her own ability to bring the magic back and embrace her own power.
And here’s the excerpt!
The most beautiful girl in any of the Four Corners of the Earth kicks me awake in the middle of the night.
Through my half-open eyes and by the light of the moon, I can see her perfectly sculpted face looming over mine. Her ruby-red lips, so entrancing that a passing bard once wrote a lengthy ode in their honor, blow hot air directly up my nose. The bard, for obvious reasons, did not mention the stench of her morning breath. As she begins to wake up, I cough, try to turn over, and fumble for our shared blanket with the intention of pulling it over my head and going back to sleep. It’s gone.
As I reluctantly blink my way awake, our bedroom comes into focus: the white-washed walls, the low rafters, the ladder down into the main room, the trunk where we keep our clothes, and then Sisi, grinning triumphantly, holding the blanket over her head.
“What do you want?”
“And good morning to you too, my beloved cousin,” she says, her dark-rose cheeks dimpling in an extremely winsome fashion. Most people can’t stay mad at beautiful Sisi for long. Luckily, I’ve had plenty of practice. I was still only a baby when Sisi and her brother came to live here, so for fourteen years, she and I have been making each other, and driving each other, mad.
“No, you see, morning happens after the nighttime. Which is what we’re having now. Nighttime. Morning is later.”
“Well technically, it’s after midnight. Thus, good morning.” She smiles at me again.
“And before dawn. Thus, good night.” I make another futile grab for the blanket, but Sisi has a good six inches of height on me and is quicker than I am even when I’m not drowsy from sleep. Defeated, I slump back against the frame of our bed. “Come on, you didn’t just wake me up in the middle of the night so that we could debate the finer points of timekeeping. Are you up to something? You already know I won’t want to be a part of it.”
“Listen.” She points down at the floor of our bedroom. Because we sleep up in the attic, I can just barely hear a low rumble of voices through the floorboards, coming from the main room below. “What are they doing awake at this hour? There must be something interesting going on.” Question and answer, all in one. As usual, I seem to be altogether unnecessary in this conversation Sisi is having with herself.
“Yes. I’m sure the price of grain has gone up fifteen milar a tonne, or something.”
“You have no spirit of adventure,” Sisi accuses.
“Another of my many faults.”
“Fine, then I’ll go by myself, and I shan’t tell you what I find.”
“Have fun. Do try not to get caught,” I advise.
She turns to face me fully, batting her long, dark eyelashes at me. It’s a trick that would certainly work on any of her many admirers among the local boys, but I’m immune to that kind of flattery. “Please, Jena? Sweet cousin, my dearest friend, it’ll be ever so much better if you just come with me.”
“Come where? Down the stairs? It’s not much of a valiant quest, even if I were inclined to be your brave companion.” After a moment’s thought, I add, “And I’m reasonably sure that I’m your only friend.”
But Sisi has no trouble continuing her conversation with herself, with or without input from me. “I’m sure you saw that carriage coming up the drive today?”
“No, it was a horse-drawn carriage!” Now, that’s a decent bit of news, I must admit. People around here use pushcarts, or occasionally mules and donkeys. Horses are unofficially reserved for the Numbered, as anyone without noble blood is unlikely to be able to afford their feed and upkeep. I carefully arrange my expression so Sisi won’t see that she’s caught my interest, but she continues on unabated. “Anyway, Aunt Mae might have said that, but I know for a fact that wasn’t the potter’s lad.”
“So Daren’s finally got himself fired, and the potter’s found someone new. I don’t see why that’s such a big deal.” The potter’s apprentice is famous around town for his clumsiness, and it would be no surprise to anyone if someone more suited to such a delicate profession replaced him. Daren is a good-hearted lad, as Aunt Mae always says, and he does works hard, but he likely breaks more pots carrying them in from the kiln than he sells in one piece. This is especially true when he delivers jugs for the cider press on our farm, since his infatuation with Sisi makes him nervous. Of course, everyone fancies Sisi—he’s not alone in that, just a little more hopeless than most.
“It wasn’t anyone from the potter’s. Nor anyone else from Leasane. It was a man around your father’s age. Better dressed, though, in some sort of gold-and-purple uniform. He gave Uncle Prinn a sheet of paper. I couldn’t quite see what was on it, but it was stamped with a golden seal and I’m sure it’s the Sign of the Three Powers itself. So, I can only assume that your father has been given a message from the Royal Court in the Capital. How often do you think a messenger from the King’s own home rides across half the Earth to seek out an apple farmer? And what could be in such a message?” She looks about ready to faint as she finishes her speech, her cheeks flushed with the effort of having so much to say so quickly.
I have to concede that this is indeed a good point—but I have a few good points of my own to make. “Sounds too good to be true. Which means it probably is. Perhaps this messenger just wanted a cup of cider and directions back to the High Road. If it was anything more than that, we’ll hear about it soon enough. In the meantime, why not go to bed? Or at least lie here and speculate so as to spare ourselves the inevitable results of snooping into what’s none of our business: we sneak out, we get caught, we get beaten, we get sent right back where we started no better off but for sore backsides.”
“You are becoming frightfully dull lately. Ever since that incident on market day—”
“Which was all your fault, I might add, though it was me who took all the blame. Here’s an idea, Jena, let’s not do our chores today! Oh, let’s steal the apple cart and ride it into town! It’ll be fun! We’ll meet boys! We’ll buy candies at the market! We won’t get caught! And when we do get caught, I certainly won’t run away home and pretend never to have left my sewing and not say a word when Jena’s getting thrashed for it!”
“Bruises heal. Unsatisfied curiosity never does.”
“I don’t know, I’m still a little sore—” To be honest, my feelings were hurt worse than my backside. Aunt Mae is strict, but she’d never thrash us so hard that bruises dealt out a week prior would still hurt. What stings isn’t the beating, now, as Sisi points out, healed and mostly forgotten. It’s the fact that I’d gotten one, and Sisi hadn’t. As usual, I get stuck taking all of the blame and the pain with Sisi getting away scot-free, since she’s too pretty and charming for anyone but me to stay angry with.
“A half hour, that’s all. Won’t you give your poor dear cousin, near to you as a sister, your closest kin in affection if not in blood, a half-hour’s worth of your rest, when I would wake a thousand night’s watching for you…”
I roll my eyes, but I must confess, even just to myself, that I do quite want to know what’s going on down in the kitchen. As usual, Sisi is, infuriatingly, right. “Just half an hour?”
“Thirty minutes, to the instant,”she promises, smiling with all the innocence she can muster.
“Shake on it, you scoundrel. I can’t trust you.”
She spits in her hand and offers it to me, and I take it. Sometimes I think Sisi would not have made a very good Lady of a Numbered House, even if her brother had not left the Numbered for his unsuitable marriage with my cousin Merri. Sisi and I shake, and then she yanks me out of the bed by our joined hands.
Today on the site, we welcome New York Times-bestselling author Andrew Maraniss, author of the newly released Singled Out: The True Story of Glenn Burke, published by Philomel Books, to share an excerpt! Here’s some more info on the book:
On October 2nd, 1977, Glenn Burke, outfielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers, made history without even swinging a bat. When his teammate Dusty Baker hit a historic home run, Glenn enthusiastically congratulated him with the first ever high five.
But Glenn also made history in another way–he was the first openly gay MLB player. While he did not come out publicly until after his playing days were over, Glenn’s sexuality was known to his teammates, family, and friends. His MLB career would be cut short after only three years, but his legacy and impact on the athletic and LGBTQIA+ community would resonate for years to come.
New York Times bestselling author Andrew Maraniss tells the story of Glenn Burke: from his childhood growing up in Oakland, his journey to the MLB and the World Series, the joy in discovering who he really was, to more difficult times: facing injury, addiction, and the AIDS epidemic.
Packed with black-and-white photographs and thoroughly researched, never-before-seen details about Glenn’s life, Singled Out is the fascinating story of a trailblazer in sports–and the history and culture that shaped the world around him.
(Blogger’s Note: if you, like me, first heard of Glenn Burke thanks to Phil Bildner’s excellent MG novel, A High Five for Glenn Burke, stay tuned for that to take on some more relevance on the site in April.)
And now, here’s an excerpt!
In 1975, The Advocate magazine ran national advertisements in mainstream publications showing straight readers that gay people were a part of their lives even if they didn’t realize it. Depicting a group of ordinary-looking men and women standing side by side, the ad was simple but provocative for the time: “Meet the chairman of the board, your clergyman, the mechanic, your favorite actress and maybe your son or daughter. They all live in a closet.”
Even The Advocate, a gay magazine founded in 1967, didn’t go so far as to suggest that someone’s favorite Major League ballplayer might be gay.
Which is not to say the thought hadn’t crossed the editors’ minds. A year earlier, the magazine had mailed letters to Major League teams requesting interviews with players “living a gay lifestyle.” The request was meant to jolt the baseball establishment into acknowledging that there were indeed gay men playing the game. Editors were stunned by the hostility of the few replies they received, especially one from longtime Minnesota Twins public relations director Tom Mee.
“The cop-out, immoral lifestyle of the tragic misfits espoused by your publication,” Mee wrote, “has no place in organized athletics at any level. Your colossal gall in attempting to extend your perversion to an area of total manhood is just simply unthinkable.”
Mee’s rant was featured in a landmark 1975 series of articles, “Homosexuals in Sports” by Lynn Rosellini of the Washington Star. “Mee is not the only one who loathes any suggestion of homosexuality in sports,” she wrote. “For hundreds like him in the image-conscious athletic establishment, homosexuality remains a fearsome, hateful aberration.”
This was the context in which Glenn Burke returned to the Dodgers’ Class AA team in Waterbury, Conn. for the 1975 season. All that separated him from the major leagues was the Dodgers’ Triple-A team in Albuquerque. But while his teammates understood that it was their ability to hit the curveball or to throw strikes consistently that would determine their fates, Glenn Burke knew that as a closeted gay man, his challenges extended well beyond the basepaths. In the spring and summer of 1975, he’d be a gay man in baseball, living a double life, keeping a secret from the profession that provided a livelihood while at the same time discovering a new world where he could be himself, fully and without shame.
As a twenty-two-year-old big fish in a small, decaying town, this would not be easy.
Waterbury had a long baseball history, with more than a dozen Minor League teams—the Spuds, the Authors, the Invincibles—entertaining fans there dating back to the late 1800s. But the stadium where Burke and the Dodgers played was a joke. Some ballpark quirks add character: the towering Green Monster at Fenway, the ivy-covered walls at Wrigley, the fountains in Kansas City. But the unusual feature in Waterbury added nothing but danger. A running track extended through foul territory along the first base line before cutting across the outfield grass behind second base and shortstop. The fact that a track dissected the field was bad enough; what made it worse were the elevated curbs on either side of the running lanes, posing a threat to ground balls and infielders alike.
Dodger farmhands considered Waterbury cold, wet, and boring; for John Snider and his wife, Jane, fun consisted of driving out into the country to admire old rock walls. In this environment, whatever enjoyment was to be had came when the players hung out together at the apartments they shared, in the clubhouse, or at bars. And while Burke remained the most outgoing player in the clubhouse, keeping everyone loose with his jokes and music, he began to carefully remove himself from social situations with his teammates, and instead sought clandestine relationships with gay men in town. Most important, and most confusing to his teammates, he decided not to share a house with any of them in ’75, renting a small room at the Waterbury YMCA.
Three years before the Village People released their hit song extolling the virtues of gay life at the Y (“They have everything for young men to enjoy / You can hang out with all the boys”), Burke was already onto the notion. When his friends on the team questioned the decision, Burke told them he loved to play basketball, and living at the Y allowed him to shoot hoops every morning before he went to the ballpark.
His teammates thought this was odd, but Burke was a different kind of dude, so they didn’t make too much of it. But one day, Marvin Webb came to the Y to play basketball with Glenn. After they shot around for a while, Burke invited him to check out his room. Webb was surprised by how small it was, maybe six feet across and twelve feet deep, and dumbfounded when Burke introduced him to an out-of-town guest, his lover from California.
Webb looked around the room and saw just one small cot. “Where,” Webb asked, “is he going to stay?”
Glenn didn’t respond, but the answer was obvious.
An unspoken drama was unfolding in this small room at the Waterbury Y, at once simple and profound. Burke was in love and wanted to share this most basic of human emotions with his buddy, Webb. But disclosing his sexuality to his teammate required enormous courage. If Webb reacted with hostility or even whispered nonjudgmentally in the clubhouse, Burke’s career could be over. And though Webb walked out of the YMCA uncertain about how he felt about the revelation, within days he affirmed Burke’s trust, telling Burke not to worry; they’d always be friends.
When Burke’s partner returned home to the Bay Area, Glenn ventured into nearby New Haven, home of Yale University. There, he met a white professor, a man who was fully his type—older and scholarly. Burke and the professor established a routine, with Glenn riding a bus twenty-three miles every morning so they could meet for a leisurely lunch on the fabled New Haven Green, an expansive and historic downtown park.
At night after home games, Burke made up various excuses when his teammates invited him out to chase women, sometimes having one quick drink and leaving, other times saying he needed to get back to the Y for a late game of basketball. Instead, he’d go to the town’s gay bar, the Road House Café, always looking over his shoulder to be sure no one saw him walking in. But one night, Burke walked out of the bar just as a member of the team’s administrative staff walked in. Neither man said a word, but Burke gave him a knowing look, as if to say, Neither one of us will speak a word about this. And neither did.
The encounter caused Burke to think more seriously about the implications of being found out by other members of the baseball establishment. The best protection from his bosses’ likely homophobia, Burke decided, was his performance on the field. “I’m just going to have to hit .300 and lead the league in steals,” he concluded. “Then nobody can say shit to me.”
Burke fell short on batting average, hitting .270 in 1975, but he slugged a career-high 12 homers and set an Eastern League record with 48 stolen bases.
At season’s end, Burke couldn’t wait to get back to San Francisco, where he could surround himself with other gay men and not have to put on an act every day. Ever since his appearance on The King Norman Show as a kid, he had enjoyed the spotlight and relished being the center of attention in any gathering of people. But increasingly, he found it difficult to reconcile his sexuality with the hetero culture of professional baseball. No longer did he want to provide the spark at his teammates’ gatherings. Now, he told a friend, he wanted to “leave his teammates behind and slip away to his own party.” Fortunately for him, in the mid-seventies Black people and gay men were changing the way Americans partied in an exhilarating new way.
Disco Fever was spreading, and Glenn Burke caught it.
Andrew Maraniss is a New York Times-bestselling author of narrative nonfiction. His latest book, SINGLED OUT, is a biography of Glenn Burke, the first openly gay Major League Baseball player.
His first book, STRONG INSIDE, was the recipient of the 2015 Lillian Smith Book Award and the lone Special Recognition honor at the 2015 RFK Book Awards. The Young Reader edition was named one of the Top 10 Biographies and Top 10 Sports Books of 2017 by the American Library Association and was selected as a Notable Social Studies Book for 2019 by the National Council for the Social Studies.
His second book, GAMES OF DECEPTION, is the story of the first U.S. Olympic basketball team, which competed at the 1936 Summer Games in Nazi Germany. It received the 2020 Sydney Taylor Honor Award and was named one of Amazon’s Best Books of 2019. Both the National Council for the Social Studies and the American Library Association honored it as a Notable Book of 2019.
Andrew is a Visiting Author at Vanderbilt University Athletics and a contributor to ESPN’s TheUndefeated.com.
Andrew was born in Madison, Wis., grew up in Washington, D.C. and Austin, Texas and now lives in Brentwood, Tenn., with his wife Alison, and their two young children. Follow Andrew on Twitter @trublu24 and visit his website at andrewmaraniss.com.
I’m so excited to be revealing the cover for contemporary f/f romance I Kissed a Girl by Jennet Alexander on the site today! It releases from Sourcebooks on August 3, 2021, and sounds cute as heck, with a cover to match! Here’s the story:
Is a happy ending finally in sight for Hollywood’s favorite scream queen?
Lilah Silver’s a young actress who dreams of climbing out of B-list stardom. She’s been cast as the “final girl” in what could be her breakout performance…but if she wants to prove herself to everyone who ever doubted her, she’s going to need major help along the way.
Noa Birnbaum may be a brilliant makeup artist and special effects whiz-kid, but cracking into the union is more difficult than she imagined. Keeping everyone happy is a full-time job, and she’s already run ragged. And yet when the beautiful star she’s been secretly crushing on admits to fears of her own, Noa vows to do everything in her power to help Lilah shine like never before.
Long hours? Exhausting work? No problem. Together they can take the world by storm…but can the connection forged over long hours in the makeup chair ever hope to survive the glare of the spotlight?
And here’s the adorable cover, designed by Dawn Adams and illustrated by Colleen Reinhart!
But wait, there’s more! We’ve also got an excerpt so you can meet Noa and Lilah ASAP!
Noa leaned in again, filling in one of Lilah’s brows with a pencil. Perched on the edge of the table, Lilah sitting below her in a lower chair, Noa didn’t notice her necklace dislodging itself from between her breasts until she felt the gentle tug on the chain and the brush of fingers against her collarbone.
Stifling a little yelp, Noa sat back, worried that she’d invaded Lilah’s space more than she should have—only it was the little six-pointed star on the delicate silver chain that Lilah balanced on her fingertips.
“Sorry,” Lilah apologized, casting her eyes up to meet Noa’s gaze through her dark-tinted lashes. “You’re Jewish? I guessed, when we were introduced, but so many people around here use stage names that I wasn’t sure if it was okay to ask.”
A faint and familiar chill prickled the back of Noa’s neck and she forced it back. There was no reason at all to be worried about what Lilah might think. There was no danger here. Noa couldn’t possibly be the first Jewish person she knew—not in a city like LA, not in an industry like theirs. Unless that was why Lilah had been cool and standoffish, and it wasn’t about Noa’s stupid runaway mouth at all…
All of those half-formed thoughts ricocheted through her head in the instant between Lilah’s question and when Noa had to answer, and when she nodded, it was a little more guarded than before. “Yeah. ‘Noa’ is a girl’s name in Hebrew.” Okay, that was fine. No recoil, only a growing smile that Noa wasn’t sure how to parse. It did give her the chance to go on the attack before Lilah could do or say anything awful. “So’s yours, for the record. It means—”
Lilah nodded. “Night. I know. I used my Hebrew name for my stage name. It was easier to pick something that was already kind of familiar.”
Which led to Noa’s next major derail of the day. Would she ever find some kind of solid ground to plant herself on around this girl? “You’re Jewish? It doesn’t say that on your IMD—” She snapped her mouth shut before she could finish the sentence.
“If you say ‘funny, you don’t look it,’ I may just kick you in the teeth,” Lilah joked, her body very still and a hint of a familiar sort of wariness threading itself through her voice now that Noa knew enough to listen for it.
“Not a chance,” Noa promised. “For some strange reason no one ever tells me that,” she added with a flash of a grin and a wink. “Polish red?”
Lilah nodded. “And Russian blond.” She was thawing all around the edges now, her wariness gone and replaced with an almost shy smile. Noa’s heart dipped down into her stomach and twirled around her chest, leaving her dizzy.
“Do you keep?”
Lilah’s cheeks flushed and she glanced away. “Sort of? Not Shabbat or anything. There weren’t any synagogues in the town where I grew up. There’s one in Petosky, but that’s like half an hour away and we didn’t really go except for big events. My family does Passover, somewhat,” Lilah offered up with a little laugh. “My dad really likes matzah as a snack, so he buys it year-round. Except for that week.”
“Only a little backwards.” There wouldn’t be any judgment coming from her—there were at least five hundred of the 613 commandments that Noa ignored on a regular basis. (Maybe more, depending on how you interpreted the one about gossip.)
Lilah ducked her head and laughed again. “Only a little! But it works for him.” The little gesture broke through the shell of perfection, but the glow of her aura never dimmed. She was very human, suddenly approachable, and when she met Noa’s eyes again, Noa felt a pull start somewhere in her midsection. Ah, crap.
Lilah turned at the sound of her name and the moment—if it had been a moment at all—was gone. “Here!”
“We’re ready for you. Time for last looks, wardrobe, and makeup, and then we’re on to scene fourteen.”
“Back to the salt mines,” Lilah joked, rising to her feet. She made a little pirouette and fluttered her eyelashes at Noa, completely unaware of the effect she was having on Noa’s blood pressure. “Do I have your approval?”
Noa swallowed hard and found her voice. “Yes, yes you do. Your makeup, I mean.” She scrambled to pull up the continuity photo as an excuse to take her eyes off Lilah and regroup. “Looks good,” she said briskly, and gave her a thumbs-up.
Lilah sketched off a salute, paused to let the wardrobe assistant tweak her shirt hem and the hairdresser to replace a bobby pin, then headed for her next mark.
Noa let out a long, slow breath and tried to force her adrenaline to stand down. Her skin still tingled where Lilah’s fingers had brushed against her, and she swore she could smell the sweet remnants of Lilah’s shampoo. Stupid Denise and her stupid reassignments. Noa would have been safe if she’d been able to keep a little bit of distance between them, but now? A few more days like this one and she was going to spontaneously combust. All they’d find of her by the end of week three would be a little pile of ashes in the shape of a girl, topped with a silver star.
Jennet Alexander has been a game designer, a teacher, a singer, a Riot Grrrl, a terrible guitar player, and an adequate crew tech and department head for both stage and screen. She grew up queer in the heart of a large Jewish community in Toronto, Canada, and now lives in a much smaller one with her partner, two kids, and two cats. Most of her wardrobe is still black. Noa and Lilah is her first rom-com.
Today on the site I’m excited to be sharing the entire first chapter from Jessica Verdi’s upcoming Follow Your Arrow, which releases from Scholastic on March 2nd and centers on setting biphobia on fire. Or I could just let the publisher describe the book in a slightly classier way:
CeCe Ross is kind of a big deal. She and her girlfriend, Silvie, are social media influencers with zillions of fans and followers, known for their cute outfits and being #relationshipgoals.
So when Silvie breaks up with her, CeCe is devastated. She’s lost her first love, and now she can’t help but wonder if she’ll lose her followers as well.
Things get even messier when CeCe meets Josh, a new boy in town who is very much Not Online. CeCe isn’t surprised to be falling for a guy; she’s always known she’s bi. And Josh is sweet and smart and has excellent taste in donuts… but he has no idea that CeCe is internet-famous. And CeCe sort of wants to keep it that way.
But when CeCe’s secrets catch up to her, she finds herself in the middle of an online storm, where she’ll have to confront the blurriness of public vs. private life, and figure out what it really means to speak her truth.
And here’s the first chapter of Finding Your Arrow!
I study the app post like it’s a Renaissance painting, dissecting and analyzing each detail before tapping the button that will send it out to the world. It took me ten minutes of crafting and deleting and rewriting to land on this combination of words and images and emphasis, but I’m still not sure about it.
Do the all-caps and exclamation points convey the right level of enthusiasm, or does the tone tip over into annoying? And I purposely limited the hashtags to three, because too many and people will just scroll right by instead of putting in the effort to read, but maybe I should have hashtagged #spring and #news too? For discoverability? And the emojis . . . I love emojis, but sometimes I wonder if everyone else in the world is over them and I’m showing how out of touch I am when I use them too much. Not that anyone’s said, “Hey, CeCe, you might want to rethink how many emojis you use” or anything. I just . . . I don’t know. I worry.
“Does this look okay?” I ask Silvie, holding the screen out. We’re lying on the floor in her room—our usual hangout spot. My leg is draped over hers, and we’re both scrolling on our phones—our usual position.
Silvie’s room is spacious, artfully designed, and looks like an #ad. Lots of white furniture, framed photography, and intentional pops of color. We spend most of our time at Silvie’s house, especially on weekends when my mom’s working long hours, or when we have a video to record or a livestream to do, like today. The sleek lines and bright light of her bedroom make for a way more professional backdrop than the chaos of mine.
Silvie skims my post draft in one point five seconds, then glances back at me. “Looks good. Why haven’t you posted it yet?”
“I needed to get it right.”
She rolls her eyes. “Ceece, we go live in”—she checks the time on her own phone—“ten minutes. Just post it; it doesn’t need to be perfect.”
She doesn’t get it. She could post Hey. Live video at 1. Watch it. and get fifty thousand likes and a hundred new followers within minutes. Everyone loves Silvia Castillo Ramírez.
I, on the other hand, have had to work incredibly hard to get people to like me and care about what I have to say.
I hold my breath and tap post. “Okay. Done.” Silvie goes back to scrolling.
When I first joined social media in seventh grade, @Hi_Im_CeCeRoss was a lot different than it is now. Not only my follower count and reach, but the content itself. The few people who actually read my posts probably got a kick out of the twelve-year-old white girl in the Midwest going on epic rants about #gerrymandering and #prisonreform and #healthcarepolicies. But I’d been fighting against my father’s conservative beliefs pretty much since I was old enough to speak. It was not only all I knew; it was who I was. And at first, the app felt like a natural extension of that: a chance to express my views without my dad telling me I was wrong, or that I’d understand when I was older, or that I was embarrassing myself. I didn’t edit, didn’t self-censor, didn’t obsess. I posted whatever was on my mind.
But then my father left.
And everything changed.
Suddenly I didn’t want to be The Girl with All the Opinions anymore, the girl who was so strong-willed, so defiant, it had torn her family apart. I just wanted to be happy, for once. I wanted—needed—a chance to breathe.
When Silvie and I met, she already had a following online—people actually listened to her, looked to her for her thoughts and perspective. Sure, her feed was mainly about stuff like #fashion and #style, but still. She was happy.
So I followed her lead.
For over two years now, I’ve done everything I can to make it look like my life is as shiny and special as Silvie’s. And that’s the thing about social media: You get to decide how people see you. You can become a casual, confident, carefree girl with more friends than she can keep track of and not a single problem to be seen. Every post, each comment, is another stitch in the tapestry of my online world. A heavily filtered selfie here, a post with a potentially controversial opinion edited out before being posted there, and about a zillion tongue-biting, sugary-sweet replies to haters. And honestly, even the haters are tolerable, because #lifestyle influencing might invite eye rolls, but it rarely invites the vitriol that fighting over immigration policies does. It certainly doesn’t lead to shouting matches so intense they make the walls of your house shake. It doesn’t stretch the limits of family, and it doesn’t result in divorce.
“You really need to stop overanalyzing everything,” Silvie says, clicking her phone off, untangling her leg from mine, and standing to stretch. It’s an unseasonably warm day for late March in Cincinnati, but the loss of skin-to-skin contact sends an instant shiver over me. “It’s not good for you.”
That’s where she’s wrong.
Overanalyzing—though I prefer to call it curating—has worked. Silvie may have 1,200,000 followers, but I have 985,000. She might have six sponsorships at the moment, but I have four. We’re both continually featured on Famous Birthdays’s “trending influencers” list.
Life isn’t perfect, the world isn’t perfect, but the time I spend on the app is as close to perfect as I’ve found. It’s my loophole. And I’d like to keep it.
Speaking of, I need to retouch my makeup before we go live. I sit at Silvie’s vanity and uncap the eyeliner I keep at her house, while she comes up behind me and grabs her brush. People often do double takes when they meet my girlfriend in person for the first time, because her combination of blue-green eyes, dark hair, and olive skin is unexpected. But those same people invariably go back for a third and fourth glance. Silvie is truly one of the most beautiful people most of us have ever seen, even online.
I, along with most of the world, am a little more ordinary-looking than Silvie. But in moments like this, studying our side-by-side reflections, it’s not hard to see what our fans see: Silvie and I don’t only look good together; we look like we go together. Our hair is almost the same shade of dark brown—Silvie’s long, mine falling in a blunt bob to just above my chin. And even though Silvie’s seven inches taller than me, we fit. My skin is pale, and my eyes are a basic brown, but I think I have nice eyebrows and shoulders, and my earlobes are just the right shape for earrings. The ones I’m wearing right now are little yellow dangly houses; they were a birthday gift from Silvie last year. Silvie’s wearing the lesbian like whoa T-shirt she got at a thrift store.
She finishes fixing her loose side pony, and I wordlessly hand her a bottle of hand lotion. Whenever she brushes her hair, she likes to rub a tiny bit of lotion into her hands, then gently tamp down the frizzies on the top of her head. After being together for over two years, we know each other’s quirks like they’re our own. “This stuff is the best, isn’t it?” she says as she squeezes a small amount of lotion into her palm and massages her hands together.
“What, the hand cream?” I lean closer to the mirror and dab some of Silvie’s coral-tinted lip gloss onto my lips.
“Yeah, all the Dana & Leslie stuff. It’s insane that they’re not more mainstream.”
“Well, that’s what they have you for.” I give her a smile, then quickly devote my attention to applying a pointless second layer of lip gloss.
Dana & Leslie is the gender-inclusive, organic, cruelty-free skincare brand Silvie’s an ambassador for. I fully support their mission, and the partnership has been great for Silvie, but if I’m being honest, I can’t stand the cloying smell of that lotion. And the face wash dried my skin out.
I’ve been avoiding sharing my opinions on Dana & Leslie with Silvie, because she’s really proud of her collaboration with them, and I don’t want to start a fight or come across as unsupportive. I even purposely left all the products she gave me out in plain view on my bedside table at home just so she would see them when she came over.
But I guess I don’t have her fooled. She’s staring at me, unblinking, in the mirror, clearly waiting for a more emphatic agreement that Dana & Leslie products are, in fact, “the best.”
Silvie and I mastered the art of the face-off long ago, and I have no choice but to allow myself to stare back. I know what she’s thinking, she knows what I’m thinking, and we both know we’re on a moving bus, just a stop or two away from The Argument of the Day.
But we’re only four minutes out from one p.m., so Silvie returns the Dana & Leslie lotion to its home on the vanity and wordlessly finishes her hair.
“Looks nice,” I say gently, an attempt at keeping the atmosphere light.
Silvie and I have always bickered. It used to be a point of pride for me. It proved, I thought, that you can be in a committed, long-term relationship with another person but still have your own thoughts and opinions, likes and dislikes. Like this painting I saw once at a museum of two people forehead to forehead, balancing on a board placed on top of a ball. I remember thinking that, apart from it being a man and a woman in the painting, the depiction could have been me and Silvie. Two individuals, each unique and strong-willed, yet when they’re together, perfectly balanced. Not halves of a whole, but two wholes who do better together than apart.
Lately, though, the board has tipped, and our balance is off. It seems every little thing I’ve said or done these last few days has annoyed Silvie. She hasn’t been smiling as much, hasn’t been finding excuses to touch or hug or kiss me all the time like she used to. The bickering has turned into arguing, and the arguments are taking longer and longer to rebound from.
I know she’s stressed about the prom planning. It’s part of her responsibilities as president of our school’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance (I’m vice president—our dynamic is nothing if not consistent). Silvie and I had planned to spend this afternoon brainstorming not-cheesy prom theme ideas to bring to our next GSA meeting. We also wanted to put out feelers to @DJRio, a Chicago-based DJ who follows us both on the app, to see if he’d consider DJing our prom. But I can’t help but feel like there’s something else going on with her.
“Just don’t post about it,” she says finally, her tone clipped.
“Post about what?”
“That you don’t like the Dana & Leslie products. It was really nice of them to send extra freebies for you.”
In one second flat, the air in the room goes stale.
“Are you kidding me?” I splutter.
“Since when do I post about stuff like that?”
This makes no sense. I don’t post anything without double- and triple-checking it. I would never do anything to jeopardize Silvie’s career, or the work we both do, or our freaking relationship.
She knows that. But all she says is “Just saying.”
“Right, okay.” I mimic the action of typing on my phone and pretend to read aloud. “Hey, just thought you’d all like to know that Dana & Leslie, the company my girlfriend, Silvia Castillo Ramírez, is an ambassador for, is overpriced garbage and I don’t know why anyone would ever want to use the stuff. ’K’ byeeee!”
I wait for her to apologize. Laugh at the ridiculousness of it. She doesn’t. She simply picks up her phone again and asks, her voice flat, “Ready to go live?”
NO, I’m not ready to go live, I want to retort. You’re being a brat and really unfair and we need to talk about this.
But it’s one o’clock. We have work to do.
I check my teeth in the reflective, silvery material of my phone case, and nod. Without further discussion, we sit on Silvie’s bed. Our bodies inch closer together and our smiles appear. Silvie hits the go live button.
“Hey, everyone!” I say, giving a little wave as the screen projects our images back to us.
“Happy Saturday!” Silvie says.
“And happy spring!” I add. Today is March 20, the official first day of spring. I love spring. The hours of sunlight stretch longer, you can wear dresses without tights underneath, and avocados are in season again.
“Oh yeah! Spring break is only three weeks away!” Silvie says. “I’m going to Mexico to visit my grandparents, and we have plans to spend a few days at the beach. I cannot wait.”
“Bring me back a seashell?” I squeeze her hand, and she laughs.
“I’ll bring you a hundred seashells, babe.” She looks at me with hearts in her eyes, and I take my first real breath since the lotion debacle. We’re back at equilibrium, I think with no small measure of relief. It was just bickering, not fighting. She’s not mad at me. Everything’s fine.
“We have lots to share today, so let’s get to it, shall we?” Silvie says.
“Yes, let’s!” I slide a sealed brown box across the bed into the camera frame and grab scissors from Silvie’s nightstand. “This package just arrived this morning from an awesome new company called Benevolence.” Silvie holds the camera steady as I slice the packing tape open. Our followers love a good #unboxing vid, and I have to admit, I do too. There’s something inherently relatable about the feeling you get when a new package arrives on your doorstep, the little thrill that zips through you as you open it up, eager for its secrets to be revealed. Will the item inside match your expectations? Will it fit? Will it be the right color? Or maybe it’s a gift from someone, and you have no idea what you’ll find beneath the cardboard box flaps.
Silvie and I don’t have an official commission-based or pay-for-posts arrangement with Benevolence, but companies often send us free stuff in the hopes that we’ll share the products on our app accounts. We almost always do. Once or twice we decided not to because the company that sent the stuff was well-known for supporting politicians whose values didn’t align with our own, but that doesn’t happen often.
I remove the packing materials and extract the pieces of clothing one by one, holding them up for the camera. Scrunchy blue socks. A soft tank top in a red-and-white geometric pattern. A forest-green cropped-length hoodie. A pair of mustard-yellow short-shorts with white polka dots.
“Oooh, give me those!” Silvie says, propping the phone up on her nightstand so she’s free to duck out of frame and try the shorts on.
I keep talking, keep describing the clothes to our over 70,000 real-time viewers. “This stuff is super cute,” I say honestly. “And the best part is it’s all eco-friendly.” I take the little information card out of the box and read aloud. “Benevolence clothing is made from one hundred percent hemp, which requires fewer chemicals and much less water than cotton to produce.”
I have a captive audience—I could totally take this opportunity to talk more about the importance of choosing carbon-neutral and sustainable products when buying new, but I don’t. Environmental efforts are considered political, and I make sure to keep politics far away from my content. “Everything is so soft!” I say instead, sliding the fabric of the tank top between my thumb and pointer finger. “I bet this would look great under a pair of overalls.”
Silvie pops back into the shot, doing a spin and showing off the shorts, which fit her perfectly, surprising literally no one. Her legs are so long that shorts always look good on her. The girl is like a freaking mannequin.
“These shorts are mine now, thank youuu,” she says with an adorable gleam in her eye.
“You look amazing, babe,” I tell her, and she grins.
She picks up the phone again and leaps onto the bed beside me, bouncing us both. “Okay! Ready for the other big news?”
“Yes!” I say eagerly, though of course I already know what she’s about to say.
“June is a little over two months away, and you know what June is?” She grins at me.
“June is Pride month!” I reply.
“Yup! Each year, throughout the month of June, Pride parades and celebrations are held in cities across the world.” Silvie’s facing the camera again. “And . . .”
She pauses for dramatic effect, and I do a little drumroll sound. “CeCe and I have been asked to lead this year’s march on Cincinnati! We’re going to be the grand marshals at our hometown Pride parade on June fifth!” She sends up a confetti filter over our faces.
“Not only that,” I add, “but we’ve been asked to give a speech at the pre-march rally!”
Talk about #goals. By its nature, this event will be slightly more political than our usual thing, which is a little scary. But I’ve worked so hard to get people to like me, and this invite is proof that I’ve made it. People want to hear me and Silvie speak. They care what we have to say. Even just the idea of that is a dream for me. How could I say no? And besides, Silvie and I will be doing it together, standing side by side, addressing a crowd full of allies with a speech we both wrote.
Silvie gives our now 78,000 real-time viewers a few more details and sets a countdown clock on her app profile. “We still have some time before the event, obviously,” she says, “but mark your calendars if you live in the Cincinnati area! We want to meet as many of you as we can!”
We end the live session the same way we always do: I throw an arm around her and kiss her on the cheek. Sometimes Silvie kisses me in these moments, and sometimes I kiss her. But it’s always on the cheek, and always right before we sign off.
The feed stops.
“Hey, I’m sorry about earlier . . .” I begin lightly, riding the high from our announcement, but Silvie pulls away.
And just like that, the energy bleeds from the room, seeping under the door and through the air conditioner vents.
She’d only been pretending everything was normal during the live feed; I see that now. I should have seen it earlier, but I wanted everything to be fine so badly that I chose to pretend her way-too-fast mood shift was real.
Silently, Silvie adds the video to her stories stream and tags me, then starts scrolling mindlessly, her eyes affixed to the screen.
“What’s wrong?” I ask after a moment. It comes out whinier than I’d planned. I want to add, Don’t make me guess. Just talk to me—we’ll figure it out. I love you. But I don’t say anything more.
She shakes her head. “Forget it.”
“Forget what?” I honestly don’t even know what we’re talking about anymore.
“Nothing. I don’t want to talk about it.”
“But I do want to talk about it.” I need answers. Clarity.
Silvie doesn’t say anything. She’s still looking down at her phone, scrolling so quickly I know she’s not actually absorbing the posts.
“I’m sorry I don’t like the Dana & Leslie stuff, okay?” I continue. “But is that a requirement? That we have to like all the same things?”
“Of course not.”
“So what, then?”
“I don’t know,” she mumbles after a beat. Still not looking at me. Still avoiding me.
“You do know,” I press, starting to feel like I’m asking for her to yell at me. “Something is on your mind, Silvie. Just tell me.”
“I don’t want to!” she finally blurts, clicking her phone off and dropping it onto her bedspread. “Stop pushing me!”
I gape at her. “Pushing you? I’m not pushing you! I’m trying to catch up to wherever it is you are. You keep snapping at me. I just want to know what I did to make you so mad at me.”
“I’m not mad at you,” she says. “I already said I wasn’t mad at you. Jeez, CeCe.”
“Well, you didn’t say that, actually,” I half shout. “But how about I’m mad at you now?”
She has the audacity to look shocked at that. “For what?”
“Silvie, you just accused me of planning to trash-talk both you and an entire company online. For literally zero reason. Don’t you know me at all?”
“I didn’t mean that, all right?” Her chest rises and falls with a shuddering breath. “Can you just let it go? Please?”
Let it go. I’ve gotten really good at letting things go over the years. I know how to put my feelings aside for the sake of keeping the peace. I know how to shut up and smile when all I want to do is scream. I just didn’t think Silvie would ever request that of me. “No.” My voice comes out on a strange waver, as if I’m battling to stay upright on a tightrope. “I think I deserve an explanation.”
The seconds pass.
Eventually she nods, like she’s decided to give in.
I wait, anticipating some semblance of an explanation.
But that’s not what I get. Out of nowhere, Silvie pitches forward and kisses me. It’s not what I was expecting, but, hey, I can roll with this. I immediately slide closer, kissing her back. We’ve done this countless times; I know the give of her lips, the curves of her face, the taste of her lavender tea obsession so well they’ve become a part of me.
But this kiss . . . It’s different.
Oddly, it reminds me of our very first one, when we were younger and pent up with not only those unbearable, impossible-to-articulate feelings of unexplored need, but also that added layer that all queer kids have to deal with. That feeling of something akin to delicious danger. Of everything feeling so freaking right for once, even with all the people telling you it’s wrong.
This kiss isn’t that, exactly. But it is just as loaded. And it stops as suddenly as it began.
Silvie pulls back, putting her palms out to carve some distance between us.
“We need to talk, Ceece,” she whispers, picking at the stitching of the bedspread. Her lips are still pink and the tiniest bit swollen from our kiss.
“That’s what I’ve been trying to do,” I insist.
“I really wasn’t planning on doing this today,” she continues, almost to herself.
My stomach grows cold. “Doing what?”
She turns her phone over, so the screen is facedown, and she finally, finally looks at me fully. Her meaning is crystal clear in her eyes.
Need to talk. Wasn’t planning on doing this.
I suddenly feel woozy, like I’ve been pitched headfirst over a precipice. I leap off the bed just to feel the sturdy floor beneath my feet.
“No.” Only after the word is out there in the room do I realize I’m the one who whispered it.
JESSICA VERDI is the author of And She Was, My Life After Now, The Summer I Wasn’t Me, and What You Left Behind. She is a graduate of The New School’s MFA in Writing for Children program and lives in New York. You can find her online at jessicaverdi.com.
Today we have an excerpt from Erin Moynihan’s upcoming Laurel Everywhere, a lesbian romance releasing November 10th from Ooligan Press! Here’s the story:
Laurel was named after the laurel bush, a nondescript plant that is found everywhere outside of Seattle, where she lives. Her siblings were also named for flora: Tansy after a pretty yellow flower that Laurel refuses to believe is a weed, and Rowan after a tree native to the Scottish Highlands. As the middle child, Laurel always felt boring compared to her outgoing siblings, like an outsider in her own family because of her idiosyncrasies.
But Laurel’s mom and siblings were killed in a car accident a month ago, and Laurel has begun to feel guilty about her sibling envy, her anger, and all she said and did when they were alive. As she and her dad work to figure out life without the rest of their family, Laurel is thankful for her two best friends, Hanna and Lyssa, whom she needs now more than ever. But since Hanna kissed Laurel, things have been weird between them.
Written from Laurel’s perspective, the story is sympathetic to first loves and heartbreaking loss.
Hanna, with her soft brown eyes and perfect olive skin and voice that sounds both frantic and calming at the same time. I’m lucky Hanna is a worrier and Lyssa is usually lost or getting kidnapped (it happened once). I’m also lucky Hanna made the two of us turn on Find My Friends a few years back. I told her Dad was taking me on a hike and she asked where and I didn’t respond. Then hours passed and her worry got the best of her.
She finds me in a laurel bush, with leaves framing my face and the smell of early-summer raindrops surrounding me. We’re somewhere east of Seattle—I remember Dad getting on the highway. I remember the city disappearing behind us and the mountains and trees appearing as the highway seemed to expand, lane after lane.
I’m somewhere near Snoqualmie Pass, I guess. I’m not sure if Hanna can see the irony of it all (she looks too frantic to even recognize that it’s a laurel bush)—not many people other than my mom regularly identify plants, but if anyone could, it would be Hanna. Hanna is a walking encyclopedia.
“Your face,” she says. I wipe my hand across my cheek and feel blood, as if the branches dared me to a duel, and I just sat there taking the punches. She grabs my hand and holds on so tightly her blood pumps against mine—pumping the life back into me. I’m being reborn from the bushes: a family-less Laurel Summers with raindrops on her forehead and dirt on her cheeks.
Two weeks ago I would have laughed if anyone told me the predicament I’d end up in. But in two weeks, I’ve gone from being part of a family of five to being part of a family of only two; I planned a funeral, and now I’ve gotten left behind in my namesake bush.
My first thought should be Dad. He’s not here. I’m not sure where he’s gone. Hanna looks worried and her mom is here too, standing a few feet away with the same expression on her face. A mirror image of Hanna herself, except with lighter skin and blonde hair. But my first thought isn’t Dad because maybe I’m not a very good daughter and in general not a very good person. Dad is all I have left and I should be looking for him, but instead my heart is melting and breaking into a million pieces because Hanna is holding my hand so tightly. I don’t want to let go because if I do, all the life she’s pumped back into me might spill out and I’ll end up a deflated balloon in the dirt.
“Where’s your dad?” Hanna asks me.
I open my mouth but the words don’t come out, which makes me wonder how long I’ve been underneath this bush, because my throat is dry and my lips feel like they’re glued together. It’s still light outside, so at least there’s that—the sun peeking through the rain clouds from earlier today. Instead of answering her, I point up the trail in the direction where I remember him stumbling away from me.
“You take her back to the car,” says Mrs. Jackson to Hanna. “I’ll look farther up. Hanna, call your father and tell him to get some people up here to search.” Hanna’s dad is a policeman. Hanna hates that he’s a policeman because she thinks the justice system is messed up, but Mr. Jackson says he became a policeman because he wanted to be a good one and show boys with dark skin like him they can become policemen too.
Hanna puts her arm around me and doesn’t even flinch when my damp clothes touch her dry ones. She composes a short message to Lyssa: “Found her. She’s fine.” The fact that they’re talking about me sprouts a warmth inside my chest. It’s nice to feel worried for sometimes, and it’s especially nice to think Hanna was paying attention to me and tracking my location. Even though it’s mostly because my family just died and I’m a loose cannon, lost in the woods near the pass on a trail to some unknown destination that nobody but Dad seems to know.
A loose cannon. That’s how I’d describe myself at the funeral. Dad cried the whole time: a steady, controlled flow of tears. I didn’t cry until the very end when they started a slide- show and I saw this one picture of Rowan, Tansy, and me. I realized I was the only one left alive in that picture and the realization made tears explode from my eyes. Hanna and Lyssa practically had to hold me down so I wouldn’t run away. Dad didn’t look at me; I don’t think he could bear it. If he’d seen me, he would’ve burst into tears too. Together, we would have drowned the whole funeral home—maybe the whole neighborhood—with so many tears even our rainy city of Seattle would be swallowed whole.
That was the last time I saw Hanna and Lyssa, as they were wrestling me down at the funeral. It was like the time in seventh grade when Daphne Peters threatened to report Lyssa for bringing alcohol to school and I nearly punched her in the face to stop her. Lyssa and Hanna held me back and lectured me about how if I’d punched her, we would’ve gotten into even more trouble, and how she was just talking herself up and didn’t really want to tell anyways. The funeral was like that, but much, much sadder.
Daphne Peters never did tell on Lyssa. I’d like to take credit for that because I scared her with my menacing twelve-year-old fist-swinging. (I’m not violent, I swear. Only when people are mean to my friends.)
Except at the funeral when they were wrestling me, I didn’t have anyone in front of me to punch. I wanted to punch the guy who was driving the truck but why would he dare be at the funeral? He probably can’t sleep at night. I can’t sleep at night. I wonder what the man who drove that truck looks like. I wonder if he feels bad about it all or if he couldn’t care less. I imagine him as a villain, large and intimidating, laughing in my face and at my mom’s little car, broken and smashed to pieces while his giant truck remained intact.
We slide into the backseat of Mrs. Jackson’s car. Hanna dusts off my pants and grabs my hands to stop them from shaking. The sun shines in through the windows and warms me up. Normally I’d be excited at the first sign of the season truly transitioning to summer, but instead I can’t stop shivering. My hands won’t stop shaking. They’ve been shaking almost nonstop for the past week, so I think it might just be one of those things that comes intertwined with death that nobody warns you about.
Hanna’s hands are warm against mine. Before the funeral, we hadn’t really spoken for a few weeks. She says it’s because she was busy, but I know it’s because we kissed and things got messy between us. But then my family died and I guess that made us forget about everything else, at least for a bit.
“I’m gonna call my dad,” she says.
Her voice sounds like it’s underwater. Like I can hear it but I can’t totally understand what she’s trying to say. She hands me a half-empty water bottle while she talks to her dad on the phone. I chug the water and it burns against my throat, which tells me I was lying underneath the laurel bush for longer than I thought. Long enough to become parched and for the sun to move across the sky.
“My dad is on his way,” she says. Hanna often talks to fill awkward silence, but lately she’s been running out of things to say to me. I stare out the window at the trees and shrubs sur- rounding the trailhead. Laurel bushes are scattered all over the ground. They’re everywhere. They make my chest tighten and a lump rise up in my throat.
She hesitates before asking, “Where—where do you think your dad went?”
I don’t know the answer. There’s a voice in my head that tells me he probably flung himself from the mountaintop, and another voice wonders if he was mauled by a bear. Yet another wonders why in the world Dad would leave me lying there in my namesake bush all alone.
He’d suggested we go hiking. The two of us hadn’t left the house in a few days and he’d said, “Why don’t we go on an adventure?” I should have known then. He sounded far too chipper to be serious, but I hopped into the car and went along with it anyways.
I mean, he did take us hiking. We pulled over at an un-marked trail and before I even zipped up my jacket, he was powering up the hill. “Laurel bushes,” he kept saying, pointing to the ground every time we passed a bush. “Look Laurel, you’re everywhere.”
I said something like “They’re everywhere,” and we both knew I wasn’t talking about bushes. Mom was always the one who loved to point out our namesake flowers. Mom was a gardener, and she named us after flowers because of course she did. Rowan, Laurel, and Tansy.
Now: just Laurel.
After I said and thought all of that, my legs turned wobbly and I needed to rest. I lay down in a laurel bush and listened to Dad’s footsteps slowly disappear into the distance. I thought he would come back for me.
Dad and I were always close. Mom and I were close too. I didn’t have a favorite. I lapped up Mom’s stories about astrology and herbal supplements and listened to Dad drone on about the difficulty of teaching English courses to freshmen who aren’t majoring in English.
But now that Dad left me alone in a laurel bush, Mom should probably be my favorite.
I didn’t have a favorite sibling either. Tansy and I would play games in the backyard, and I went to Rowan’s soccer games and cheered for him with all my heart. I’ve always been neutral in matters of family. Mom said it was because I am a Pisces. “You’re agreeable. You feel for others.” Mom blamed most of our actions on our star charts, like the time Rowan got caught hooking up with a girl in a school janitor closet and Mom blamed it on him being a wild Gemini rather than the fact that he was an idiot.
Maybe it’s too soon to call my dead brother an idiot, but he was. I didn’t—don’t—have a favorite sibling but objectively I can say Rowan is the least agreeable of the three of us. Was—is—I don’t know.
“We’ll take you back to your house,” Hanna says, filling the silence again. “I can see if Lyssa wants to come over. Or do you want to come to my house? We can do that too. That might be better. And then my mom can feed all three of us and we can watch old TV shows on Netflix.”
I don’t say anything and she decides that we’re going to her house. I would’ve picked that anyways, even if her voice didn’t sound underwater and I had the ability to speak again. Despite chugging the remains of the water bottle, my throat is still on fire.
“I’ll ask Lyssa to come over. Do you want Lyssa to come over?”
I nod. Lyssa helps—she gets it. Her mom is dead and she doesn’t know her dad because she’s been in the foster system since she was ten. She just tells people both her parents are dead because it’s easier than telling them that her dad was just really messed up. Right after the accident, Lyssa and Hanna came over. Hanna tried to help by cleaning the house, cooking food in the kitchen, and offering to help my dad with planning the funeral. Lyssa just sat on my bed and talked to me about things that weren’t my dead family, like music and the most recent season of The Bachelorette. Both were helpful in their own ways, but Lyssa feels calmer and less frantic. It’s less like she’s trying so hard to help and more like she just helps by being there.
Mr. Jackson pulls up in his police car, jumps right out, and meets Mrs. Jackson at the trailhead. They talk for a few minutes and then he disappears into the woods alongside a few more men and women in uniform. Mrs. Jackson makes her way back to the car, without my dad.
Did he leave me? Would he leave me? My parents left me one time in a Walmart. Mom said it was because I was the quiet one. Tansy was a baby and so she was attached to my mom in a backpack and Rowan was always talking and making noise. I got lost among the aisles of games and art supplies, and I didn’t even notice they’d left until Mom came frantically running around the corner and wrapped her arms around me. I sometimes wish she hadn’t told me they left and hadn’t made a big deal about it, because I often think about how they left me. I think about it a lot. If she’d just grabbed my hand and said, “Laurel, it’s time to go,” I would’ve had no idea they’d ever left.
Being left behind seems to be the plight of the middle child. Even without my brother and sister standing beside me, living and breathing and taking up space, I’ve still managed to be forgotten somewhere.
“John is looking for your dad,” Mrs. Jackson says. Her voice is calm but underneath I can tell she’s a storm. She sounds just like Hanna when Hanna tries to hide that she’s afraid.
“Thanks for picking me up.”
“You don’t have to thank me, honey.”
The trees pass by my window like we’re in a race and they’re trying to beat me home. The sun continues to dip, turning the sky above us dark. I should be back there in the woods, looking for Dad, but my legs are tired and my face is covered in cuts and scrapes. I feel as though I’m running low on gas, and if I stay and look for Dad, my engine might give out. Maybe it’s already given out.
What if they don’t find him? Or worse, what if they do and he’s…I can’t think about that. So, I watch the trees and I imagine how it would feel to get squished by a car and how I’m going to ask Tansy how it felt to die when I see her in heaven—if there is a heaven. I wouldn’t ask Mom or Rowan because both of them would lie. They’d try to tell me it felt like falling asleep. But Tansy, she’d be honest with me.
The trees pass by the farther we get from wherever Dad disappeared to. My phone lights up with a message from Lyssa linking to a Tumblr post full of Stranger Things theories. Hanna’s foot taps nervously against the floor of the car so loudly I can hear it over Mrs. Jackson’s music. I breathe in the air and wonder if ghosts are following me around now. If I breathe hard enough maybe I’ll consume them and I’ll be able to hear Mom and Tansy and Rowan inside of me.
Mom always told us ghosts were real.
Erin Moynihan is a debut novelist from Seattle, Washington, where she spends many rainy days typing away in coffee shops. Her editorial work has appeared on Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, The Mighty, and various other outlets. She has a background in social work, which informs the subject matter of her writing. She is passionate about elevating young female voices and breaking the stigma around mental health. When she’s not working, she’s likely spending time cuddling with her dog or adventuring around the Pacific Northwest. You can see what she’s up to at www.erinmoynihan.com
Kathleen Jowitt is back on the site today, revealing an excerpt of her upcoming contemporary f/f litfic novel The Real World, which releases on November 2nd! Here’s the story:
Colette is trying to finish her PhD and trying not to think about what happens next. Her girlfriend wants to get married – but she also wants to become a vicar, and she can’t do both. Her ex-girlfriend never wanted to get married, but apparently she does now. Her supervisor is more interested in his TV career than in what she’s up to, and, of the two people she could talk to about any of this, one’s two hundred miles away, and the other one’s dead.
‘So,’ Lydia said when Rowan had left and they were standing out on the pavement, ‘since you brought up the subject of whatever God has lined up for us in 2017, bring it on, I thought I should let you know. I’ve decided.’
Colette had been expecting this, but it still landed hard. She took a breath in. ‘You’re going to do it. You’re going to do the whole “become a vicar” thing.’
Lydia smiled, and then tamed the smile. ‘I’m going to see how far I get, at least.’
‘OK,’ Colette said, very carefully. ‘So tell me what happens next.’
‘I talk to Marcus.’
Colette tucked her hand into Lydia’s elbow, with an obscure sense of having yielded ground. ‘Haven’t you been talking to him for the last year?’
Lydia nodded, smiling once again. ‘Yes. I mean, I follow up on that conversation we had before Christmas. I tell him that he’s right, it’s time to go for it.’
That seemed logical enough. ‘And then what does Marcus do about it?’
‘He passes me on to the DDO, who’ll probably give me another very long reading list.’
They turned right at the bottom of the hill to walk north-east along the riverbank. The water glittered in the thin sunlight. There was nothing between them and the breeze now. ‘Remind me who the DDO is?’
‘Diocesan Director of Ordinands. And then, if I’ve successfully jumped through all the hoops in between, they send me on a BAP.’
‘That’s the residential thing with all the interviews,’ Colette said triumphantly. ‘I remember Peter doing it.’ Twice. She added, ‘I don’t remember what it stands for, though.’
‘Bishop’s Advisory Panel.’
‘Nothing to do with bread products, then.’
‘In one sense.’ Lydia’s voice was brittle. ‘In another, it has everything to do with them.’
‘I suppose it does.’
They walked on in silence for a little while. Colette allowed herself to think that if it all went to plan and Lydia ended up in a vicarage then at least that would solve the problem of rent. Underneath that she was aware of mingled exhilaration and apprehension, and was not sure whether they belonged to herself or to Lydia.
‘If I get through that, then there’s three years of theological college, then there’s a curacy.’ Colette knew all this, but she let Lydia run through it once again. ‘One year as a deacon, then two as a priest. On the ground, serving people, loving people.’
‘Six years, then.’ It felt like a lifetime.
‘The next few months will be like what I’ve just done, but more so, going deeper. Talking more. Then I get to the BAP and it’s going to be hell.’
Colette nodded. ‘I told you the same thing when I started my PhD.’ She meant it as a warning, and she suspected that Lydia knew this. It was all very well to talk about following your passion (she had never used those words herself, but plenty of other people had used them on her behalf), but the cost had been more than she had anticipated; more, perhaps, than she had had at her disposal.
Lydia said, ‘And you were right.’ Her tone was gracefully neutral.
Colette considered how best to put it into words. ‘I said that, and I didn’t know what hell was like. Now I do.’
Lydia elaborated: ‘It might or might not be hell, and I have to do it either way.’
‘I know.’ She bit her lip. ‘I wish you didn’t.’
‘I think that’s how I would have felt about your PhD, if I’d known what it was going to be like for you.’
Colette tried not to let her surprise show. Lydia had never been anything other than supportive, up until now. ‘Fair’s fair, then?’ She raised her eyebrows.
‘I’ve been enjoying it up to now. I still am. It’s just… all got real. And the further I get into it, the more of myself I invest. And what if I’m wrong? What if they don’t want me? What if I’m not wrong and they still don’t want me?’
‘What indeed?’ It was probably not the most helpful response.
Lydia answered her own question. ‘I suppose I just keep on at the council until I work out what else to do.’
She found herself wishing that they had talked about it before. It was not really Lydia’s fault that they had not: Colette had, out of a combination of delicacy and cowardice, evaded the subject except insofar as it affected their lives on an immediate and practical level. ‘And what about me? Doesn’t my presence in your life throw a very large spanner into the works before you’ve even started?’
‘Marcus says no.’ Lydia did not sound convinced. ‘They’ll see past you.’
Colette said, with all the sarcasm that she could muster, ‘How gracious of them. I can hear Peter singing Like a mighty tortoise moves the Church of God at this very minute. Have you talked to him about it?’
‘Kind of. Bits of it.’ Lydia frowned. ‘He sort of gets it, and he sort of doesn’t.’
Colette wished that she had been more specific. ‘Because he’s already got through the process? Or because you’re gay, and he’s not?’
‘Yes. He gets the deep-down existential worry about, you know, who are you, if it turns out that you aren’t who you thought you were.’
‘Well, I would hope so,’ Colette said, remembering the fallout from the first time Peter had gone for selection, and been turned down.
Lydia nodded. ‘Yes. More than I hope I ever will, though I think he might be beginning to forget what that feels like. Because of course that is who he is. But… OK, he knows that I might be turned down for the wrong reasons, and he’s very ready to get angry about it on my behalf, but I don’t think he quite understands how much it’s been weighing me down even up to this point. How often I’ve said to myself that I won’t do it after all because of that.’
‘Well, yes, but the whole process…?’
‘Oh, yes, that.’ Lydia laughed. ‘He knows about that.’
‘And the… wanting to do it at all?’ Which was, Colette thought, the hardest thing of all to understand. She took her hand back, suddenly needing space.
Lydia nodded. ‘He wouldn’t have gone through the whole thing twice if he didn’t, would he?’
Children’s shrieks and laughter drifted across the river from the public gardens. ‘Where did it start?’ Colette asked, hurrying to get the words out before she lost her nerve. ‘When did you know?’
Lydia met Colette’s eye, and glanced away again. ‘The answer to that one changes every time I talk to Marcus.’
‘As far back as your church in Hastings?’
A self-deprecating smile. ‘Looking back that far, I can see it coming. Well, there was Sunday school, and holiday club, and the band. But no, that obviously wasn’t going to go anywhere. I was a bit too female.’
‘What about when you were a hall officer for Fellowship? Same thing?’
‘Yes, same thing. Still too female. And too gay.’ Lydia hesitated. ‘I think that I really began to understand when Becky died.’
Colette was silent: shocked, and impatient with herself for being shocked.
After a little while, Lydia said quietly, ‘There was nothing I could do. Nothing that anybody could do. Nothing that I could say to make anything better. Nothing that I could say that wouldn’t have been offensively trite. And yet there we all were, having to live in that house where she wasn’t any more. You and Will and Georgia, all devastated in your own different ways. And all I could do was to be there. Which in itself sounds offensively trite, now.’
‘You were there,’ Colette said, low, not entirely trusting herself.
Lydia glanced at her, judging, Colette supposed, how much further it was safe to go. ‘I think that up until that point I’d always thought, you know, it wasn’t as bad as all that, you could pray harder and things would look better. That God would give you strength. But when Becky… well, that was when I realised that no, it was exactly as awful as it looked, and I was still called to be there. At the foot of the cross, you know? I was more use to you than I was to Will or Georgia, I expect, but at least I was some use to somebody.’
Colette was not sure that she could bear much more of this line of thinking. She returned to the present. ‘What does it feel like?’ she asked.
‘Sometimes it feels like restlessness, like I know I’m not doing what I’m meant to be doing.’ She broke into a smile. ‘And sometimes it’s like this certainty at the back of my mind that this is what I’m going to do next, and when I’m not thinking about it then that’s what I think I’m going to do. Like, if I get asked the where-do-you-see-yourself-in-five-years question, then the answer that first comes to mind is well of course I’ll be a minister.’
‘The way your parents assume that of course you’re going to university, and so you do, too?’
‘Your parents, maybe. But yes, a bit like that. But more –’ She broke off, thought for a moment, and continued: ‘Did you ever have a moment of revelation, when it occurred to you that no straight person would worry as much as you were worrying about whether they might be queer?’
‘Oh. Yes. About three weeks after I started going out with Jess, actually.’ After two terms’ worth of a miserable crush on the Head Boy followed by the world-expanding experience of that unlikely relationship, it had been a liberating realisation for her. Judging by Lydia’s face, her feelings were more mixed. ‘So is that what it’s like?’
‘I think that’s what’s going on. Like, if God wasn’t calling me – to something,’ she added hastily – ‘then I wouldn’t spend so much time thinking about whether or not I was being called. Unless it’s, what’s it called when you think so much about something that you keep seeing it everywhere?’
‘Yes. That. But it doesn’t feel… I mean, it does feel…’ She shook her head. ‘Well, I did turn out to be gay. And so I think there probably is something going on, and it feels just as huge and important and impossible.’ Her face changed. ‘And then I think about it and I remember all the reasons why it might not be going to happen, and there’s this immense sadness about the whole thing. And – this is going to sound weird –’
‘It doesn’t feel like it’s all my sadness. Because I’m not sad at all, really. I like my job and I love you and I have a church where I feel like myself, and things are honestly really good. It’s like someone’s sad on my behalf, and sometimes I can hardly bear it.’
Colette looked behind them, then ahead, and put her right hand into Lydia’s pocket to take her left one. ‘And yet you keep going with it.’
Lydia’s expression was heartbreakingly earnest. ‘Of course I do. Because it’s an active kind of sadness; it’s quite close to anger; it keeps bubbling up through the cracks, and I know that if the answer is no then it’ll find something else to do, but I’ve got to follow it as far as it’s… navigable, I suppose.’ She laughed. ‘Good grief. What a tortured metaphor.’
‘I think I get the idea.’
‘And then, sometimes, when I think, yes, this is going to happen, I just get this amazing sense of peace, of rightness. The first time I spoke to Benjy about it. The time I admitted to Felicity that yes, she was onto something.’ She paused for a moment. ‘And today.’
Kathleen Jowitt writes contemporary literary fiction exploring themes of identity, redemption, integrity, and politics. Her work has been shortlisted for the Exeter Novel Prize and the Selfies Award, and her debut novel, Speak Its Name, was the first ever self-published book to receive a Betty Trask Award. She lives in Ely, UK.
Today on the site we’re checking out a snippet from After Elias by Eddy Boudel Tan, a contemporary adult novel that just released from Dundurn about an engaged gay couple ripped apart by a tragic plane crash right before their wedding. In the words of the author, “The story takes place in a mature phase of queerness, one in which the protagonist’s identity as a queer man is neither an issue nor a secret. It examines what we strive for now that we’ve achieved the current level of normality — one that previous generations fought for — while recognizing the reality that the suffering endured is never far from reach.” You can read the official blurb here:
When the airplane piloted by Elias Santos crashes one week before their wedding day, Coen Caraway loses the man he loves and the illusion of happiness he has worked so hard to create. The only thing Elias leaves behind is a recording of his final words, and even Coen is baffled by the cryptic message.
Numb with grief, he takes refuge on the Mexican island that was meant to host their wedding. But as fragments of the past come to the surface in the aftermath of the tragedy, Coen is forced to question everything he thought he knew about Elias and their life together. Beneath his flawed memory lies the truth about Elias — and himself.
From the damp concrete of Vancouver to the spoiled shores of Mexico, After Elias braids the past with the present to tell a story of doubt, regret, and the fear of losing everything.
I was nine years old when I discovered that I wasn’t afraid of death.
The heat of the sun on my bare shoulders and the chill of the wet concrete under my feet was a troubling combination for me that day.
The other children, all wild eyes and unpredictable limbs, howled like apes around a watering hole. They bared their teeth as they chased each other. They banded together to lay claim to their territories. I was careful to stay out of the path of the other boys, my eyes averted from theirs and my fists clenched by my side.
It was a relief to pull my head beneath the surface of the water. The noise from above became a muffled hum. The sting of the sun softened. I felt the grip on my mind loosen as I submerged myself in stillness.
My senses awoke as another body collided into mine. My feet stretched down toward the floor, expecting to feel the reassurance of its tiles. There was only empty space.
My hands reached up and grabbed fistfuls of water. I managed to reach the surface for a gasp of air before I was pulled underneath again by an invisible hand. Every kick of my legs and stroke of my arms reeled me farther down. I held my breath for as long as I could, then let it all out in a swarm of bubbles. My limbs went still as I closed my eyes.
I didn’t feel fear. I felt a deep and wonderful calm. I wonder what happens now, I remember thinking.
My breath returned in violent coughs and purged chlorine as I lay on the wet concrete of the pool’s edge. There was a look of wonder in the eyes that stared down at me, as though I had risen from the dead. The first thought that came to me was I must have been Aztec.
Come to think of it now, I’d always been a different kind of boy.
You see, the Aztecs didn’t fear death. They believed it was glorious. Death perpetuated creation. Without it, there would be no life. Their bones were the seeds from which new life grew. Their blood watered the dry earth. Both humans and gods sacrificed their lives so this wheel of conclusion and creation would continue to spin on and on.
After that final breath, Aztecs travelled to one of three places. Those with honourable endings, like warriors in battle, would transform into hummingbirds to follow the sun. Those who met their end by water would find themselves in a paradise of eternal spring. The majority would not be so lucky. Their journey would take them to the underworld of Mictlan, a hellish place guarded by jaguars in a river of blood.
Reading about this as a boy, it seemed unfair to me how the most terrible human beings could so easily escape an eternity of bloody jaguars. Had things ended differently that summer day at the pool, I would have found myself in paradise by simply drifting too far into the deep end. However flawed it may be, it’s a beguiling idea. Your life is irrelevant. Your death is what counts.
Eddy Boudel Tan is the author of After Elias and The Rebellious Tide (forthcoming 2021). His work depicts a world much like our own — the heroes are flawed, truth is distorted, and there is as much hope as there is heartbreak. Besides having professional experience in communications strategy and brand design, he serves home-cooked meals to the homeless as cofounder of a community initiative called the Sidewalk Supper Project. He lives with his husband in Vancouver.
Today on the site, we’re thrilled to welcome Timothy Jay Smith, whose new thriller, Fire on the Island, releases tomorrow! Timothy, whose The Fourth Courierwas a finalist for Best Gay Mystery in the 2020 Lambda Literary Awards was kind enough to provide us with an exclusive excerpt, so check out the blurb and then dig in!
Fire on the Island is a playful, romantic thriller set in contemporary Greece, with a gay Greek-American FBI agent, who is undercover on the island to investigate a series of mysterious fires. Set against the very real refugee crisis on the beautiful, sun-drenched Greek islands, this novel paints a loving portrait of a community in crisis. As the island residents grapple with declining tourism, poverty, refugees, family feuds, and a crumbling church, an arsonist invades their midst.
Nick Damigos, the FBI agent, arrives on the island just in time to witness the latest fire and save the dog of Lydia, a local cafe owner. Immediately enveloped by the community, Nick finds himself drawn to Takis, a young man who becomes his primary suspect, which is a problem because they’re having an affair. Theirs is not the only complicated romance in the community and Takis isn’t the only suspicious character on the island. The priest is an art forger, the young Albanian in love with Lydia’s daughter harbors a secret, the captain of the coast guard station seems to have his own agenda, and Takis’s sister, who owns a local bar, has a vendetta against the whole village. Nick has to unravel the truth in time to prevent catastrophe, as he comes to terms with his own past trauma. In saving the village, he will go a long way toward saving himself.
Vassoula woke up in a lonely bed. It had been lonely since Omar disappeared. She couldn’t bring herself to say died or killed himself because she hoped that, despite how gruesomely the skinheads had cut him, he would miraculously come back to her whole again. In that fantasy she envisioned handsome and dancing the syrtaki better than any Greek, a black stubble generously shadowing his cheeks—his cheeks that went missing.
Omar. He had given her a life when he came into hers. Unless she married, she was destined to remain her wretched mother’s handmaiden; and Vassoula would have nothing to do with the local boys, certainly not enough to marry one. She was darker complected than the Vourvouliani, and the boys, starting in their teens, called her Gypsy bitch for not putting out. She was adopted, so they freely assigned to her any origin that they wanted, but Vassoula knew she wasn’t Gypsy. She was Turkish. A nun at the orphanage disliked her for it, and wanted to be rid of her enough not to mention it to prospective parents. Secretly, Vassoula reveled in her Turkishness. She nurtured it because it nurtured her to know she was different from the people who treated her so harshly, abusing her verbally—and otherwise, as some did eventually, before she was liberated from the orphanage’s form of incarceration to become a servant in another.
Ten years of mopping floors later, Omar arrived in Vourvoulos. Movie star handsome with dark moody eyes, clever and Turkish; she had conjured him many times, dreaming only of men like him when she gave pleasure to herself. Beyond that pleasure, she dreamt of a man to free her from servitude, not trade one enslaved situation for another. Instinctively, Omar understood that. His family, too, had suffered from discrimination for being Turkish, or certainly the consequences of it. Only after she moved in with him did he confess that his family had once lived on the island; an extended family, and prosperous when you added up all their land; land too rocky and scrubby for the Greeks to bother with, though their ancient ancestors had been the first to terrace it. It was those stony plots—sometimes no bigger than four strides long and two deep—that Omar’s peasant ancestors had worked, finding them sufficiently fecund to sustain their families.
All that ended with the Exchange, when the diaspora Turks and Greeks were forced to trade places, overnight becoming refugees in their own countries. Omar’s great grandparents left Vourvoulos with little more than their crying fifteen-year-old son—his grandfather—unable to understand why he had to lose all his friends, Greek and Turkish. Once back in Turkey, they’d never recreate their village no matter how much they would miss it, but instead would flee to relatives if they knew their whereabouts, or be shuffled off to temporary camps—as was Omar’s family—while a useless bureaucracy scrambled to do what little it could for the many tens of thousands like them. Omar’s grandfather, having just wished his boyhood Greek friends a forever farewell, had to do the same to his Turkish mates only a few hours later when their boat made its landing in what still stood of Smyrna.
Though the fires that destroyed the legendary city had been put out, a charred smell hung heavily in the air. On the docks, hucksters and shysters descended on the refugees even as government agents shunted them into buses to take them to a camp—equally rife with hucksters and shysters. Thus began decades of poverty inflicted on Omar’s family starting before he was born. All his growing-up years, he heard reminisces of their lost island: its fresh air, azure sea, and wild lavender roses—a sharp contrast to their stuffy apartment in a shanty neighborhood of sprawling Istanbul.
Omar had simply appeared in Vourvoulos one day, not ten Greek words in his head, and soon became the curiosity of the village. Turks rarely visited the tiny village, and still fewer stayed for more than a night or two, but Omar rented a room for a month, letting his landlady know that he would likely keep it longer. He only did the usual things tourists do—hike in the hills, swim in the sea, learn the four-syllable Greek word for thanks—but that didn’t stop rumors from spreading that he was trafficking drugs or might be a white slaver. Certainly, he was up to no good; no Turk ever had been. Omar, though, was undaunted. At once, he was enamored with the mythical lost island of his storied childhood, and equally glad to escape the grinding conditions back home. He had no intention of leaving.
Omar kept it a secret that his family had lived there for generations. If it were known, he worried it would only stir up fears that he had returned to reclaim property or seek revenge, when he wanted neither. He wanted the idyllic life described from afar, not hardscrabble Istanbul, which was becoming more unbearable under the growing power of intolerant imams. By age twenty-five, he’d made the decision not to spend the rest of his life kowtowing to men who dressed their women in sacks, forbade everyone simple pleasures, and governed through fear. Fending off his mother’s relentless efforts to get him married, he waited tables in two restaurants, earning excellent tips because of his extraordinary good looks. By the time he was thirty, he had saved enough money that he wouldn’t arrive in Greece a penniless refugee, but an immigrant able to sustain himself until he found a way to make a living. He’d gambled and he won.
The risks Omar could not have anticipated were the threats posed by Greece’s internal turmoil, especially its Depression-era economy giving rise to a fascist insurgency. Or so Vassoula was mulling over that morning, after rousing herself from her lonely bed to sip coffee on the terrace, perched high over the village with a clear shot of the long beach stretching into the distance until it melded with the coastline. That view had once brought her such joy, not only for its beauty, but for what it represented: her second escape, and the first into an unexpected freedom. Her first escape had been from the orphanage, the second from her adoptive servitude. She had escaped into Omar’s liberating arms, holding her on that terrace through long talks she had never imagined possible; and when they felt like making love outdoors, they did.
She could almost see him again, walking down that long beach, becoming a speck before turning back. He worked hard, he partied hard, he loved hard—and he needed time alone. He needed a time not to talk to anybody, though he talked to himself, gesticulating and working out whatever needed working out. He did that most mornings while other village men gathered in the kafeneios for their first coffee. Initially Vassoula was suspicious of Omar’s need to be alone, and spied on him through the binoculars, watching him approach Poustis Point because it was there that her father loitered; and sometimes it was there where Omar turned back, but not always, not if he was having a particularly troubling conversation with himself. But never once did he disappear out of sight too long to be accused of her father’s sort of sordid absence.
The morning when it happened, their lovemaking had been especially tender. Only the night before, they had decided to have a baby, and made love then, too. When Omar left for his walk, she felt a special longing—a worried hollowness—and took the binoculars from the cupboard. She knew his body language better than her own and easily spotted him.
Omar, distracted by the conversation with himself, approached Poustis Point. She saw the skinheads before he did. Three of them hovering in the rocks, conferring and planning their attack. Turn back! she wanted to shout. Stop talking to yourself and look up! But her voice would never carry that far.
She saw everything that happened.
She even knew what was said because Omar survived to repeat it.
“Do you have a cigarette?” a skinhead asked.
“I am sorry. I do not smoke.”
“Maybe the problem is, your cigarettes are wet.”
Vassoula saw Omar tip his head questioningly.
“I am sorry. I do not understand.”
“Maybe you help your friends swim across.”
“I do not swim here. I walk here.”
“Did you hear that, guys? He walked here.”
“Then he must’ve walked on water,” a second skinhead scoffed. “With his accent, he wasn’t born here.”
The third added, “He’s probably a Turkish cocksucker.”
“Is that why you’re out here? Hoping to get your cock sucked?”
“Probably by a refugee.”
“Or do you suck theirs?”
The skinheads laughed.
Omar sensed he was in trouble. “I don’t understand.”
“Hear that guys? He doesn’t understand. What can we do to make him understand?”
“I go home,” he said, and pointed to the village. “My wife waits for me.”
Vassoula saw him point. Come back! she was screaming inside.
“You should never have left home,” sneered the first skinhead. “None of your filth should’ve.”
“I go back now.”
Omar turned and took a couple of steps.
“Not so fast,” the first skinhead said. When Omar didn’t stop, he barked, “Hey!”
Just keep walking! Vassoula begged.
“I’m not finished with you.”
Omar faced the skinhead. “My wife waits for me.”
He turned away again.
The skinhead signaled, and his two pals ran up and grabbed him. Omar struggled to defend himself, but together they managed to wrench his arms behind him.
The first skinhead approached him, menacing him with a knife.
Vassoula, seeing it flash in the morning sun, was going mad. Please God, no! No!
He kicked at the skinhead, who laughed, and stepped around him and put the blade to his throat. “Please don’t,” Omar begged.
“Fucking. Faggot. Filth. Feeding the refugees then fucking them. There’s probably some Arab greasing up his asshole waiting for you behind the rocks.”
“My wife is waiting for me.”
“Fucking bitch is going to wish you never came home.”
Vassoula, through the binoculars, couldn’t make out what happened next. She saw the skinhead flick his knife twice, each time tossing something to the seagulls on the beach. Then they released Omar and his hands instinctively covered his face. For a moment, she thought they had cut out his eyes; and later remembering that first thought, she would wonder if it might not have been more merciful than letting him see his own ruined face.
At that moment, though, she wasn’t thinking of anything except saving Omar, and flew out of the house. “HELP! HELP! Omar’s been stabbed! Help!” she never stopped crying as she flung herself down the village path. A dozen people trailed after her, looking past her wild hair to Omar stumbling toward them. For Vassoula, the blood seeping through his fingers glistened so bright red that the rest of the world turned gray.
They stopped, only feet apart. Vassoula could see they hadn’t cut out his eyes, but what the skinheads had done would forever haunt them. Omar would never see anything the same again. He certainly would never be looked at in the same admiring way.
His eyes pleaded for help as he lowered his hands.
Hers expressed horror when he did.
His knees buckled and he collapsed.
Four men ran up and grabbed his arms and legs to haul him cumbersomely back to the village. Another two trotted alongside, stripped of their shirts that they pressed to his slain cheeks to stem the blood. Vassoula stumbled after them, too shocked by what she had seen to believe it possible; and yet there was Omar, being toted in front of her, the tagalong women ululating their distress as if he had already died. He wouldn’t, not then. He would survive to live a freak’s hell.
That morning, longing for Omar, anguish overwhelmed her. Only thirty years old and doomed to be in mourning for the rest of her life. She couldn’t imagine anyone after Omar. When the skinheads cut away his cheeks, they cut out her heart, and when Omar committed suicide, he killed her, too. She sobbed, wanting the life that had been stolen from them, preferring to join him in death than endure a life without him.
The cats, risking her swift kicks, rubbed against Vassoula’s legs to remind her that they wanted to be fed. She stomped her foot to scatter them and went back inside. Opening the kibble bag sent them into a zigzagging frenzy between her feet, and that time she did kick at them. “Go away!” she cried, and hurled kibble at them, which they dodged before darting around to scarf it down. “I hate you! God I hate you!” she screamed while throwing more handfuls at them. Her laughter was seeded with madness as the animals cowered under the furniture to eat the pellets that rolled there.
Takis walked in and saw the kibble on the floor. “I see you fed the cats.”
“They were hungry.”
“They’re always hungry in the morning.”
“What did you eat for breakfast? Cock?”
“You should never have gone to Australia. Look what it turned you into.”
“I was always like this.”
“You’re going to end up just like father, hiding behind rocks to have sex.”
“No I’m not. I’m going back to Australia where I don’t have to hide behind rocks to have sex. Why did you hate him so much? Didn’t you feel sorry for him at all?”
“He was pathetic. He settled for Zeeta because he’d been caught doing something with another man one time. He didn’t try to explain it away as a youthful experiment or some drunken mistake. Or that he’d been seduced against his will. Over one incident, he settled for her, for a nothing life. What kind of man is that?”
“A gay man in Greece,” Takis answered. “Most of them end up unhappily married. Sometimes you forget that he rescued us from the orphanage. They both did.”
“I don’t forget. I only wish they had been different parents.”
He poured kibble into a bowl, which brought the cats running. “They were who they were.”
“Neither one of them had a life, especially him, because of your kind of love.”
“You’re as bad as the rest,” Takis said. “What kind of life could he have had? He was never going to have a relationship with a man. Not a real one.”
“Is Nick the right man for you?”
“Yeah, only he doesn’t live in Melbourne.”
“I didn’t know there were types, only faggots.”
“Okay, he is a faggot, if that’s the word you want to use. He’s also an FBI agent,” Takis boasted.
“The American police.”
“I know what FBI is.”
“So he’s not a faggot in the way you think.”
“He must be investigating the fires,” Vassoula suggested. “Why else would he be here?”
“He says he’s writing a book.”
“Be careful what you say to him.”
“What are you talking about?”
“He might try to make a connection to you. In fact, he might have come looking for you.”
“Why do you think?”
Raised crisscrossing America pulling a small green trailer behind the family car, Timothy Jay Smith developed a ceaseless wanderlust that has taken him around the world many times. En route, he’s found the characters that people his work. Polish cops and Greek fishermen, mercenaries and arms dealers, child prostitutes and wannabe terrorists, Indian Chiefs and Indian tailors: he’s hung with them all in an unparalleled international career that saw him smuggle banned plays from behind the Iron Curtain, maneuver through Occupied Territories, represent the U.S. at the highest levels of foreign governments, and stowaway aboard a ‘devil’s barge’ for a three-day crossing from Cape Verde that landed him in an African jail.
Tim brings the same energy to his writing that he brought to a distinguished career, and as a result, he has won top honors for his novels, screenplays and stage plays in numerous prestigious competitions. Fire on the Island won the Gold Medal in the 2017 Faulkner-Wisdom Competition for the Novel, and his screenplay adaptation of it was named Best Indie Script by WriteMovies. His recent novel, The Fourth Courier, set in Poland, published in 2019 by Arcade Publishing, was critically acclaimed. Previously, he won the Paris Prize for Fiction (now the Paris Literary Prize) for his novel, A Vision of Angels. Kirkus Reviews called Cooper’s Promise “literary dynamite” and selected it as one of the Best Books of 2012.
Tim was nominated for the 2018 Pushcart Prize. His stage play, How High the Moon, won the prestigious Stanley Drama Award, and his screenplays have won competitions sponsored by the American Screenwriters Association, WriteMovies, Houston WorldFest, Rhode Island International Film Festival, Fresh Voices, StoryPros, and the Hollywood Screenwriting Institute. He is the founder of the Smith Prize for Political Theater.
You know when you’re already so excited for a book, and then you see the cover and you just gasp with joy at both its beauty and the fact that the premise has externally been done justice? If you love that feeling as much as I do, you’re definitely going to want to keep reading to learn more about A Curse of Roses by Diana Pinguicha, a debut f/f YA Fantasy Romance coming December 1, 2020 from Entangled Teen. Here’s the pitch:
With just one touch, bread turns into roses. With just one bite, cheese turns into lilies.
There’s a famine plaguing the land, and Princess Yzabel is wasting food simply by trying to eat. Before she can even swallow, her magic—her curse—has turned her meal into a bouquet. She’s on the verge of starving, which only reminds her that the people of Portugal have been enduring the same pain.
If only it were possible to reverse her magic. Then she could turn flowers…into food.
Fatyan, a beautiful Enchanted Moura, is the only one who can help. But she is trapped by magical binds. She can teach Yzabel how to control her curse—if Yzabel sets her free with a kiss.
As the King of Portugal’s betrothed, Yzabel would be committing treason, but what good is a king if his country has starved to death?
With just one kiss, Fatyan is set free. And with just one kiss, Yzabel is yearning for more.
She’d sought out Fatyan to help her save the people. Now, loving her could mean Yzabel’s destruction.
Based on Portuguese legend, this #OwnVoices historical fantasy is an epic tale of mystery, magic, and making the impossible choice between love and duty…
And here’s the spectacular cover, designed by Entangled’s Art Director, Bree Archer!
But wait, there’s also a heartbreakingly romantic excerpt!
Hearing her name in Fatyan’s lips heated her cheeks further, and her closeness breathed wonder into her lungs. No stranger had come so near her, and she almost stepped away—but then her eyes found Fatyan’s and the tender curiosity reflected upon them, and the enchantment of it all rooted her in place.
“I need your help,” Yzabel said.
“I know. I need yours, too.” A slight tilt of her head. “What would you ask of me?”
Yzabel tensed, her fingers matching the white of her dress as she clutched it. “You have to promise not to tell anyone. Even after we leave this place.”
“Is it the sahar?”
“Magic.” She motioned toward Yzabel’s left hand still glowing as though someone had spread embers under the skin. “It’s what woke me up, even though you were far away.”
The curse had been reacting to Fatyan’s. Yzabel’s lips fell open. “Can you tell me why it turns all the food I touch into flowers?”
Intrigue drew Fatyan’s lips into a pout and her fingers to her chin. “You’ve been cursed?”
“Yes. That’s why I came to find you.” Yzabel looked at Fatyan from under her brown eyelashes, and her tongue darted to wet her mouth. “I need it gone.”
Pensive eyes studied her. “I need to feel your sahar better.” Fatyan caught her hand before it touched Yzabel’s skin, left it to hover above her jaw. “May I?”
An answering nod came without Yzabel’s command, and she stepped forward so Fatyan’s fingers brushed her cheek. The moura closed her eyes as she fully cupped the side of Yzabel’s face, and she wasn’t certain what spell had her enthralled so completely, if it was the stone’s or the moura’s, but her heart was racing, and an odd feeling forming in her stomach, so much like hunger and yet not.
The magic inside her surged, and heat spread from where their skin touched. Yzabel’s heart tried to climb up her throat. When she swallowed it back down, the throb rose to her ears, deafening her to anything that wasn’t Fatyan.
A crease appeared between the moura’s brows as she opened her eyes, and her hand moved across Yzabel’s jaw, down the slope of her neck, mesmerized as they trailed her own gesture. Yzabel looked down when the moura stopped at her shoulder and gasped at the sight before her.
Under Fatyan’s touch, Yzabel’s skin came alight, as though she had candles underneath her flesh and Fatyan’s fingers were the flame that lit their wick.
“This is no curse,” Fatyan said under her breath. She trailed her hand down the inside of Yzabel’s arm, and it was like watching a storm cross her skin.
Born in the sunny lands of Portugal, Diana grew up in Estremoz, and now lives in Lisbon with two extremely fluffy cats and one amazing bearded dragon. A Computer Engineer graduate from Instituto Superior Técnico, she has worked in award-winning educational video games, but writing is where her heart always belonged. When she’s not working on her books, she can be found painting, immersed in books or video games, or walking around with her dragon.
Today on the site, we’re thrilled to welcome Grace Kwan, whose debut short story collection, Prelude & Other Stories, which was published by Life Rattle Press on June 1st and contains short stories short stories based on the author’s own life and coming of age as a bisexual Chinese-Malaysian-Canadian immigrant. Grace has provided us with an excerpt, so check out the cover and blurb below, then dig in!
Prelude & Other Stories by Grace Kwan
This collection of short stories transports the reader to the sizzling heat of Kuala Lumpur’s streets, to crimson sunsets at Vancouver’s bayside, and to the drizzly shores at Bible camp. The narrator, a young Chinese-Malaysian-Canadian girl, grapples with a simultaneously claustrophobic and distant relationship with her mother as she navigates her own teenage obstinacy, queer identity in the face of religion, and the universal pursuit of fitting in.
People love to tell me about how young and beautiful my mom looks for her age, with her dyed brown hair and dark chocolate eyes—and of course, her dancer’s physique.
“Are you sure you’re not sisters?” they’d ask.
I’ve never paid much attention to the comments, until now. My mother’s beauty strikes me like an epiphany—the way she carries her slender frame across a room, the way she disciplines her thick hair into a ponytail at the nape of her neck every morning, the way her cheekbones sit high and proud on her face.
Once, in the car with a handful of my classmates on our way back from a field trip in grade eight, my friend Bailey and I contemplated life after high school. I couldn’t see myself marrying or having children at all, but Bailey liked the idea of settling down. Jeremiah Crane, sitting beside me, pushed his wire-rimmed glasses up his pimpled nose, ran a bony hand through his orange curls, and announced, “If I were to marry, I’d get an Asian wife.”
“…Why?” I demanded after a long and scandalized silence.
“I don’t know, I just can’t picture anything else. I think their culture just makes them more…gentle, submissive…”
I could see the East Asian woman Jeremiah conjured with his words: demure and fine-boned, with alabaster skin and creases in her eyelids. Bailey, who was Filipino, huffed in disbelief. I stared out the window at the blur of grey asphalt. If I looked at Jeremiah then, I thought I might burst a blood vessel—his or mine, I didn’t know.
I see the two men examining a bouquet of white roses nearby. I want Mom out of their line of sight.
“Are you ready to go?” Mom asks, eyeing the toy Anne hugs to her chest.
“Yeah, yeah,” I mumble, taking the bunny from Anne and shoving it back on one of the shelves. “Let’s go.”
* * *
Grace Kwan is a Sociology MA student at Simon Fraser University. Her articles and personal essays on race, media, and culture can be read on Necessary Fiction, Plenitude Magazine, and other online publications. She’s also a regular contributor for Camp Thirlby.