Flash Fiction Friday: Escape

Gabriella, aka Gabriel, dashed through the alleys and over fences, easily evading the militia. She prised the top off the faux ammo urn, the sign behind it proclaiming it the property of the Fortnite Militia. Inside she shirked the clothes off and whispered the spell. The mercenaries jerked off the lid and peered inside, seeing nothing at first in the darkness. They turned aside and inspected the lid. Gabriella pulled herself out of the urn and slowly backed away, as quietly as possible, completely naked and invisible. Again, the soldiers looked in, and this time, they saw the shed clothing. Snatching up the shirt and pants, they guffawed at the audacity of the young man to think he could escape them, and yet they were at a loss to explain returning with only his clothes and an unbelievable story.

The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi

REVIEW

After escaping an abusive husband of an arranged marriage, Lakshmi has curated a niche life as a henna artist and herbalist, carefully balancing her needs with the desires of her wealthy, high caste clients. Until…her ex-husband brings to her a sister Lakshmi didn’t know existed, along with the information that both of their parents are dead. A sister who can topple her meticulously constructed life, simply by being her naive, adventurous self. Joshi has created a picture of a precarious position within society that is specific to someone who provides a service that’s both decorative and healing, desired for its aesthetics and cultural significance. Although accepted into higher society, Lakshmi is still considered a servant to the most influential of her clients, and thereby afforded no protection against her sister’s impetuous actions. Not only has the author provided a compelling tale, but she has included a glossary of hindi words and a history of henna artistry. I was fortunate to receive a digital copy of this beautiful novel from the publisher Mira Books through NetGalley.

EXCERPT

Prologue

September 1955

Ajar, State of Uttar Pradesh, India

Her feet step lightly on the hard earth, calloused soles insensible to the tiny pebbles and caked mud along the riverbank. On her head she balances a mutki, the same earthenware jug she uses to carry water from the well every day. Today, instead of water, the girl is carrying everything she owns: a second petticoat and blouse, her mother’s wedding sari, The Tales of Krishna her father used to read to her—the pages fabric-soft from years of handling—and the letter that arrived from Jaipur earlier this morning.

When she hears the voices of the village women in the distance, the girl hesitates. The gossip-eaters are chatting, telling stories, laughing, as they wash saris, vests, petticoats and dhotis. But when they spot her, she knows they will stop to stare or spit at the ground, imploring God to protect them from the Bad Luck Girl. She reminds herself of the letter, safe inside the mutki, and thinks: Let them. It will be the last time.

Yesterday, the women were haranguing the Headman: why is the Bad Luck Girl still living in the schoolteacher’s hut when we need it for the new schoolmaster? Afraid to make a sound for fear they would come inside and pull her out by her hair, the girl had remained perfectly still within the four mud walls. There was no one to protect her now. Last week, her mother’s body had been burned along with the bones of other dead animals, the funeral pyre of the poor. Her father, the former schoolteacher, had abandoned them six months ago, and, shortly after, he drowned in a shallow pool of water along the riverbank, so drunk he likely hadn’t felt the sting of death.

Every day for the past week, the girl had lay in wait on the outskirts of the village for the postman, who cycled in sporadically from the neighboring village. This morning, as soon as she spotted him, she darted out from her hiding place, startling him, and asked if there were any letters for her family. He had frowned and bit his cheek, his rheumy eyes considering her through his thick glasses. She could tell he felt sorry for her, but he was also peeved—she was asking for something only the Headman should receive. But she held his gaze without blinking. When he finally handed over the thick onionskin envelope addressed to her parents, he did so hastily, avoiding her eyes and pedaling away as quickly as he could.

Now, standing tall, her shoulders back, she strolls past the women at the riverbank. They glare at her. She can feel her heart flutter wildly in her breast, but she passes, straight as sugar cane, mutki on her head, as if she is going to the farmers well, two miles farther from the village, the only well she is allowed to use.

The gossip-eaters no longer whisper but shout to one another: There goes the Bad Luck Girl! The year she was born, locusts ate the wheat! Her older sister deserted her husband, never to be seen again! Shameless! That same year her mother went blind! And her father turned to drink! Disgraceful! Even the girl’s coloring is suspect. Only Angreji-walli have blue eyes. Does she even belong to us? To this village?

The girl has often wondered about this older sister they talk about. The one whose face she sees only as a shadow in her dreams, whose existence her parents have never acknowledged. The gossip-eaters say she left the village thirteen years ago. Why? Where did she go? How did she escape a place where the gossip-eaters watch your every move? Did she leave in the dead of night when the cows and goats were asleep? They say she stole money, but no one in the village has any money. How did she feed herself? Some say she dressed as a man so she wouldn’t be stopped on the road. Others say she ran off with a circus boy and was living as a nautch girl, dancing in the Pleasure District miles away in Agra.

Three days ago, old man Munchi with the game leg—her only friend in the village—warned her that if she didn’t vacate her hut, the Headman would insist she marry a widowed farmer or demand she leave the village.

“There is nothing here for you now,” Munchiji had said. But how could she leave—a thirteen-year-old orphan girl with no family or money?

Munchiji said, “Have courage, bheti.” He told her where to find her brother-in-law, the husband her older sister had abandoned all those years ago, in a nearby village. Perhaps he could help her find her sister.

“Why can’t I stay with you?”she had asked.

“It would not be proper,”the old manreplied gently. He made his living painting images on the skeletons of peepal leaves.To console her, he’d given her a painting. Angry, she’d almost thrown it back at him until she saw that the image was of Lord Krishna, feeding a mango to his consort Radha, her namesake. It was the most beautiful gift she had ever received.

Radha slows as she approaches the village threshing ground. Four yoked bulls walk in circles around a large flat stone, grinding wheat. Prem, who cares for the bulls, is sitting with his back against the hut, asleep. Quietly, she hurries past him to the narrow path that leads to Ganesh-ji’s temple. The shrine has a slender opening and, inside, a statue of Lord Ganesh. Gifts are arranged around the Elephant God’s feet: a young coconut, marigolds, a small pot of ghee, slices of mango. A cone of sandalwood incense releases a languid curl of smoke.

The girl lays Munchiji’s painting of Krishna in front of Ganesh-ji, the Remover of All Obstacles, and begs him to remove the curse of The Bad Luck Girl.

By the time she reaches her brother-in-law’s village ten miles to the West, it is late afternoon and the sun has moved closer to the horizon. She is sweating through her cotton blouse. Her feet and ankles are dusty; her mouth dry.

She is cautious, entering the village. She crouches in shrubs and hides behind trees. She knows an alone girl will not be treated kindly. She searches for a man who looks like the one Munchiji described.

She sees him. There. Squatting under the banyan tree, facing her. Her brother-in-law.

He has thick, oily, coal-black hair. A long, bumpy scar snakes from his bottom lip to his chin. He is not young but neither is he old. His bush-shirt is spotted with curry and his dhoti is stained with dust.

Then she notices the woman squatting in the dirt in front of the man. She is supporting her elbow with one hand, her forearm dangling at an unnatural angle. Her head is completely covered with her pallu, and she is talking to the man in a quiet whisper. Radha watches, wondering if her brother-in-law has taken another wife.

She picks up a small stone and throws it at him. She misses. The second time, she hits him in the thigh, but he merely flicks his hand, as if swatting away an insect. He is listening intently to the woman. Radha throws more pebbles, managing to hit him several times. At last, he lifts his head and looks around him.

Radha steps into the clearing so he can see her.

His eyes widen, as if he is looking at a ghost. He says, “Lakshmi?”

Excerpted from The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi, Copyright © 2020 by Alka Joshi. Published by MIRA Books.

Photo by Garry Bailey

BIO

Alka Joshi is a graduate of Stanford University and received her M.F.A. from the California College of the Arts. She has worked as an advertising copywriter, a marketing consultant, and an illustrator. Alka was born in India, in the state of Rajasthan. Her family came to the United States when she was nine, and she now lives on California’s Monterey Peninsula with her husband and two misbehaving pups. The Henna Artist is her first novel. Visit her website and blog at thehennaartist.com

SOCIAL MEDIA

Author Website: https://thehennaartist.com/

Facebook: @alkajoshi2019

Instagram: @thealkajoshi

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/18257842.Alka_Joshi

PURCHASE

Harlequin

Indiebound

Amazon

Barnes & Noble

Books-A-Million

This Won’t End Well by Camille Pagán

Annie has had it with people, declaring that she is accepting no new people into her life after her fiance moved to Paris to find himself, her career stalled due to a sexual harassment incident, and her closest friends have become “concerned.” Told in epistolary style through Annie’s journal and email correspondence, Dear Reader is privy to Annie’s private thoughts—her frustrations and confusions—as she stumbles into new friendships despite her declaration. Pagán infuses humor into the story as Annie faces challenging decisions. Fans of Ann Garvin and Sonali Dev will appreciate Pagán’s delightfully flawed characters and realistic storyline which offers no clear-cut answers to life’s hard questions. I was fortunate to receive a digital copy of this wonderful novel by one of my favorite authors from the publisher Lake Union Publishing through NetGalley for an honest review.

Umair Mirxa—Fantasy / Sci-Fi Author

Ello. My name is Umair Mirxa. I live and write in Karachi, Pakistan. To be a published author is a dream I have long held and cherished, and it has finally, slowly come true over the past year or so. I have the honour of being published in several international anthologies, but there is much yet to achieve, including my first novel, and hopefully, an epic fantasy series. More recently, I have taken up drawing as a secondary creative outlet. When I am not writing, I spend my time on Netflix, reading, and watching football as an Arsenal FC fan.

Tell me about your writing process: schedule, environment, inspirations, etc.

The greatest and most ever-present inspiration for me is, and forever has been, J.R.R. Tolkien. I read my favourite passages from The Lord of the Rings whenever I’m stuck with my own writing or even generally if and when something has me down. Charles Dickens, Neil Gaiman, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Christopher Paolini are just a few of the other authors who have inspired me.

I don’t really work to a strict schedule unless faced with a looming deadline. I do, however, make a point of writing every single day, even if what I produce turns out to be spectacularly ridiculous rubbish. If the muse is singing, I have been known to write for 14-16 hour sessions without food or sleep. There are, of course, plenty of days when even a 100-word drabble seems like the most horrible chore. I write digitally using a desktop PC, sitting at a desk which has a notepad, a pen-holder, an ashtray, several mugs of coffee, and snacks and smokes in a room which contains my bookshelf, a TV, a PS4, plenty of light, and a couple of extremely comfortable leather sofas.

Walk me through your publishing process from final draft to final product, including services hired as a self-published author, and marketing.

While I have been published in nearly three dozen anthologies recently, I have yet to self-publish a book. Once it is ready, and hopefully the day is not too far off, I plan on seeking out a couple of author friends to beta-read the final draft, and then upload the final product to print-on-demand platforms like Amazon and Lulu. I am lucky enough to have professional experience as a graphic designer and a digital marketer, thus eliminating the need for hired services. I hope to create a decent cover myself, and I will definitely be doing my own marketing, at least for a while yet.

Talk about your support system online and IRL, especially your biggest cheerleaders.

I feel I have been truly blessed when it comes to having a support system as a writer. My wife does everything possible to facilitate my process and schedule, and has been the greatest, most constant source of motivation and encouragement. My mother, both sisters, brother, mother-in-law, and sisters-in-law and even their husbands have all cheered and spurred me on, and I have the greatest group of friends a guy can ask for in my corner, always. They have supported me, encouraged me, chastised me when necessary, and contributed ideas and advice for my stories.

Lastly, and most certainly not the least, I have been incredibly fortunate to have a rather remarkable group of author and publisher friends online who have beta-read my work with honest feedback, shown me submissions opportunities, encouraged me to write and submit, and given me excellent advice not only for writing but for life as well. They include, and I apologize in advance if I fail to mention someone I should, authors such as Steve Carr, Shawn Klimek, David Bowmore, Bruce Rowe, Mark Kuglin, Patt O’Neil, Mehreen Ahmed, Pavla Chandler, Aditya Deshmukh, Nerisha Kemraj, Ximena Escobar, Kelli J Gavin, Arabella Davis, and Dawn DeBraal, and publishers/editors Grant Hudson, Dean Kershaw, Zoey Xolton, Madeline L. Stout, and Stacey Morrighan McIntosh.

How does life influence your writing and vice versa?

In every way possible, I imagine. For most of my life, reading fantasy stories has been a way of escape, and now I write them myself, more often than not, for the very same reason. Yet no matter how fantastic a landscape I portray or how outlandish my characters, the essence of my own personal experiences permeates all of my writing. My characters, therefore, and much like I do myself, will generally hate racism and discrimination in any form with a vengeance, and they’ll tend to be quiet and introverted, with only a small group of close friends. They will have experienced loss and adversity, will enjoy books and food and travel, music and solitude, and the all the simple pleasures of life.

Simplicity is perhaps the greatest lesson taught to me by the art and practice of writing. Too often, we complicate our lives beyond reason by chasing after material and financial gain at the cost of all that is good and pure in our time on Earth.

What do you love most about your creativity?

The ability to bring to life characters and things and places, and entire worlds which I can visit and explore at leisure. To be able to have conversations with people I would never actually meet, to give them lives and loves, experiences and friendships. To dream of a world which has never been and might never come to be but still be able to envision and set stories within, and then to share them with the world that is.

I love how my creativity means I am never, ever bored and can comfortably be alone for days, even weeks on end if necessary. I enjoy discovering potential stories when I’m out at a restaurant, mall or park, and can create characters of the people I see and meet. More recently, since I have taken up drawing, there is the additional joy of studying light and shadows, form and shape and perspective, and then to try and apply all of it to a blank canvas.

Most importantly perhaps, and I know all authors crave an audience, but I absolutely love when someone tells me they enjoyed reading one of my stories. It is one of the greatest pleasures in life, I believe, when your work is the source of joy for another.

Connect with Umair:

Website: http://umairmirxa.com/

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Umair-Mirza/

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show\.Umair_Mirxa

BookBub: https://www.bookbub.com/authors/umair-mirxa

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/UMirxa/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/UMirxa12

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/mirxa.umair/

Author Extra: Write a 50-word story right here, right now!

Brynhildr withdrew her sword from the fallen warrior’s chest, swayed, and collapsed herself. Slowly, the dark descended, and she felt herself ascending. Strong arms around her. A gentle caress. The weight, the pain, the fear. All of it, gone.

She opened her eyes, and with a smile walked into Valhalla.

Author Extra Extra: Art Gallery

The Fifteen Wonders of Daniel Green by Erica Boyce

Daniel Green finds purpose in secretly designing and creating crop circles within a secret organization who have field agents across the country. On his significant fifteenth crop circle, he feels drawn to the family of the farmer who hired him, and his life may just find another purpose. Boyce carefully presents the process of designing and making the crop circles, delving into the psyches of those who choose to do this work, and offering very human reasons for their hire. I received a copy of this wonderful story from the author’s agent Eric Smith for an honest review, and I highly recommend this book.

Colombiano by Rusty Young

Pedro’s life on his family farm turns into a nightmare when guerrillas execute his father and banish his mother from their home. Vowing revenge, he joins the Autodefensas, a paramilitary group fighting the guerrillas, discreetly alongside the state military, and inculcates himself into hierarchical politics toward his hidden agenda of vengeance. Young represents a no-win situation for a teenage boy in a village that’s essentially a war-zone based on greed disguised as ideology. The author writes from a well-researched position of direct observation and interviews with real-life child soldiers, though the perspective must remain that of a white westerner. Young co-founded a foundation to rehabilitate and resocialize former child soldiers, using his residence in Bogota as headquarters and tithing royalties from this novel to the foundation. Read about his history and connections here: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/24214.Rusty_Young. As a novel, this is a compelling story of terror, self-redemption, romance, and familial obligations, evoking awareness of these child soldiers. I received a digital copy of this well-written story from the publisher Bantam through NetGalley.

Katie Rose Guest Pryal—Non-Fiction Author, Novelist, and Advocate

Katie Rose Guest Pryal is the bestselling author of novels, including Entanglement, Chasing Chaos, and Fallout Girl, and non-fiction, including Life of the Mind Interrupted: Essays on Mental Health and Disability in Higher Education and Even If You’re Broken: Essays on Sexual Assault and #MeToo. She writes for Catapult, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and other magazines. She lives in North Carolina.

Tell me about your writing process: schedule, environment, inspirations, and how you determine whether you’re writing a non-fiction book or a novel, and if that changes your process.

Thank you for asking me such thoughtful questions. First—I’m very lucky because I get to write full time. I do teach one course a year at our law school here in Chapel Hill, and I give talks (about one per month). But otherwise, I’m writing. I write lots of different things: I have three different regular magazine columns. I write books for academic and professional audiences (mostly on professional writing). And, I write trade books: novels and nonfiction books. Basically, I’m writing all of the time. I don’t have a choice.

What all of this means is that I have to plan my time very carefully to account for the many deadlines I am responsible for, and to be sure that the important parts of my personal life are also taken care of. I’m a wife and a mother of two young children. I also have discovered (way too recently) that it is important to take care of myself as well.

I tend to focus on one project at a time. On my calendar, I will mark out a period of time to work on one project until it is finished, and then I will move onto another project. Right now, for example, I have edits back on my next novel. The editorial process will go much better if I do them all at once without lots of breaks. So: I will clear my calendar for a week or two (however long it takes), and I’ll do this revision until it’s done. Stopping in the middle means I might lose threads or forget important things that I need to fix. That’s not efficient. Essentially, this process is just a writer’s version of “no-multitasking.” Once I get my 4 hours of efficient writing in, though, I will still have time for daily tasks, like answering emails and pitching stories, things that must happen to keep the ship afloat. But I won’t try to write two books at the same time. That’s not efficient, at least not for me.

Walk me through your publishing process from final” draft to final product, including who does what when, and marketing that you do as the author.

On average, I publish one trade book a year.

(Note: I usually publish more than one book a year because I’m also publishing academic/professional books, too. However, my academic/professional book publication schedule depends a lot on other people because I work with co-authors and because the publication dates depend a lot on strange things like the academic calendar. The point is, sometimes I publish more than one book a year, but let’s not worry about those other books right now.)

Back to what I was saying: I usually publish one trade book a year. I’m not unusual in this. Many excellent authors and author teams publish 2-3 books a year (and I wish they’d publish more, Ilona Andrews). I’m on a one-book-a-year schedule. How I write, though, is in bursts. I’ll write my first draft (70-80k words) in a matter of weeks, maybe 6 weeks. I realize that sounds fast, but you should see the steaming pile of nonsense that comes out in 6 weeks. Then, I set it aside for a while. I go back to it, take some anti-nausea medicine, and revise. After that first revision, I send it to my most trusted editor-friend. I trust her because she’s a great editor and also because she won’t share with the world how terrible my early drafts are. Then I wait a while more to let the book “sit” (think: aging whisky), and then I revise again with her comments. I usually send it back to her to make sure I did it right (mostly because I’m neurotic and worried) and she sends it back (with lots of encouragement and few more comments), and then I revise once more and send it out to my beta readers, people I trust to read it on their e-readers and give me their honest feedback on the story. ONE MORE REVISION with that beta feedback (or maybe three or four), and I’m done. Again, I think my process is pretty normal. I want to emphasize how group-oriented writing is. I literally could not do this without my trusted people.

And, because I publish one book a year, I am always writing a book. Always, always writing. I’m grateful that I have time to do it. But also, I’m working on setting some boundaries. Maybe one year I’ll go crazy and skip publishing a book.

Talk about your support system online and IRL, especially your biggest cheerleaders and how you became a beautiful blooming Tall Poppy.

I have a great support system. My husband and kids are incredible. I also have some great hobbies (including a new one!) that are both outside-hobbies and physical so I’m sure to get away from my desk. My support system of fellow writers and readers I described in my writing process. And of course, the Tall Poppy Writers is a wonderful community of supportive writers. I’ve made some of my best friends through that group.

Dear Readers can clearly feel your essence in your writing, especially your essays; how does your writing in return influence your life?

I figured out when I was very young (like, age 12) that writing things down would help me figure things out. I still have my journals from back then—somehow they survived all of the moves and purging I’ve done over the years. I still using writing to help me gain perspective on my world. A lot of my essays began as me trying to solve a problem in my life. Often, the problem seemed so huge and unsolvable. And then, after writing about it, I was able to find a way to intervene, to make things better. And after I was able to make things better for me, the essay became something I could share with others. In fact, my non-fiction books (on mental health, on career changes, on sexual assault) all started that way. Me: “I feel like I don’t know what to do. I think I’ll write about it.” *scribbles a lot.* “I think I have an answer. Let me share it with literally everyone.”

In fact, being able to write myself out of problems is one of the things I love most about being a writer in the first place.

What do you love most about your creativity?

[I just got to this question, and I answered it in my last one!]

Connect with Katie:

twitter.com/krgpryal

facebook.com/krgpryal

instagram.com/krgpryal

goodreads.com/krgpryal

website: katieroseguestpryal.com

The Kill Club by Wendy Heard

A product of her decisions within a harsh justice system, Jazz does her best to protect her little brother Joaquin from his adopted (her foster) mother’s irresponsible religious response to his diabetes. Approached by a vigilante via phone, she resists at first, but gives in to the exchange of murders, though her first two attempts are thwarted, and she is then targeted. That the killings are obvious murders belie the idea that there’s an elaborate secret killing machination in place, especially since it does not seem to include an effective contingency plan. I received a digital copy from the publisher Mira Books through NetGalley, my request based on my appreciation for her previous book Hunting Annabelle, which I found brilliant.

Flash Fiction Friday: Werewolf Museum

Photograph by Max Braday
Dungeon and Torture Museum
Burghausen Castle, Burghausen, Germany

The dozen or so individuals gathered around the display while one read the placard out loud.

During the seven centuries long Bloodluster-Lycanthropy War, torturous atrocities were committed on both sides. Here you see “harmless” non-silver metal spikes that were driven into a small coven of vampires onto a silver slab, thus preventing their escape. Placed in an isolated cave deep within the Eurasian forest, they were found 157 years later by chance, after the war ended.

Of all the names, why do they insist on that one—a voice lamented from the rear. Dude, you’re not even a vampire; you’re a simple wraith—scorned a tall, dark, handsome vampire. The wraith whined—But I want to be. Laughter spread through the group as the reader rejoined them and said—the winner gets to name the war, bloodsucker.

Flash Fiction Friday: The Enemy Comes

“No one is my enemy.”

“Sure, Hank, no one is your enemy. We know. But let’s keep our tazers at the ready just in case, okay, my friend?” Waltraud snagged the book from Hank and stuffed it in the front of her shirt, bumping his tazer up with her own. “Why does your book smell like puke? It’s overwhelming my own fetid swamp in there.”

“It’s regurgitating the hate that surrounds–“

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever. Sorry I asked.” Shoulder to shoulder, they strode stealthily through the starship’s upper deck, three starkiller robots on their heels like big dumb dogs with 4317s holding ammo that detonated on contact. When one hit a human head, it was a fireworks of organic material. Hitting a robot endangered them all. Sometimes the difference wasn’t obvious. The starkillers were programmed to follow the instructions of Waltraud alone.

When she turned the corner and her head disappeared from a blaster ray, the starkillers turned to Hank, who said, “No one is my enemy.” They fired.