REFLECTIONS Now Has a Book Trailer!

I know what you might be saying: "Briana, why create a book trailer for a novel that's been out for more than a year?" Well, because I WANT TO! Also, because I've only just gotten the hang of using iMovie, and because I think Reflections deserves love more than anything else I've written... but you know. Same thing.

Anyway, I'm thrilled to share this brand-spanking-new book trailer with you. I've never made one before, and it was a lot of fun! Let me know what you think in the comments below. What book should I give this treatment to next?

RELATED LINKS:

Thanks for watching! Also, keep your eyes on this space—I have some big changes coming soon!

Guest Post: How to Rock Character Creation in Your Novel

Hi everyone! Briana here. I'm still getting settled in my new place, so today's blog post comes from the lovely Sarina Langer, a dear friend and one of my editing clients. I'll be back with a brand-new vlog on Friday. Enjoy!

Character creation is one of my favourite parts when I plot a new WIP. It's a bit like meeting new people for the first time, wouldn't you say?

Intriguing, relatable characters ensure your readers will be invested until the very end—but how do you rock your character creation?

Today, I'll share some of my character creation secrets with you! I even brought you a present ;)

Briana Morgan - Character Creation (Banner).jpg

Strengths and Weaknesses

You've probably already heard this a hundred times, right? The reason I'm including it anyway is because it needs to be exploited until there's nothing left.

You can go easy—your MC's strength could be that she's an excellent archer, and her weakness could be spiders. (I know I relate to the latter)

Or, you can make it a little more complicated. Your MC's strength (let's call her Sara) could be unwavering loyalty to her brother and optimism even in the darkest situations.

Her weakness could be the memory of her parents dying, or a hatred for killing. Remember her strength being that she's good with a bow? A weapon? CONFLICT

The more complicated your characters are, the more your readers will fall in love. Your readers are just as complicated—all humans are—and we love seeing ourselves in fictional characters!

Wants and Fears

So, our girl Sara has seen her parents die and now hunts for dinner with a bow to keep herself and her brother alive. Losing her brother is a natural fear, but what other fears might this attachment cause?

Seeing someone else die?

Returning to her childhood home?

Losing the necklace her mother left her?

Sara's wants can be simple: survival. But what does her survival look like? Does she want to make a new life somewhere? Does she want to stay on the move? What does she want for her brother?

How does she fear she might fail?

And, now that you know all that...

Your character's knowledge vs. the reader's

It's tempting to write something like 'Karen, who was Sara's mum but died when Sara was ten, was still in Sara's memories' because the reader needs to know, right? They do, but Sara wouldn't think this. Sara knows who Karen was. Sara knows how Karen died.

She wouldn't think 'Karen, my mother who died when I was ten', she'd think 'Mum'.

So, unless someone asks her directly, she'd have no reason to be this detailed. Honestly, she'd probably try to forget about it. We've just decided she's seen her parents die, after all—pretty traumatising!

Your reader definitely needs to know, but in your character's own time. It’s whenever your character is ready—not when you are ready, or when your reader might be ready.

Take your sweet time introducing it

You don't introduce yourself to someone new by saying 'Hi, I'm Sara, I watched my parents die six years ago so I'm depressed and protect my brother because he's all I have left. I learned how to use a bow because I need to keep us fed and alive, but I kinda hate killing people and animals. I'm just trying to survive, you know?'

You'd be reserved. You'd say 'I'm Sara.' and hope this person you've just met moves on. No one ever asks if you have parents, so this new character wouldn't either unless there's a good reason—and giving your reader that information isn't it.

Feed your readers info slowly. Let them get to know your characters like they would a real person.

If in doubt, ask yourself: does my character say this to teach the reader something, or because it fits with the plot, pacing, and their personality?

Have a freebie!

Briana Morgan - Character Creation Freebie Image.jpg

To help you create believable characters, Briana and I have attached a downloadable mini character questionnaire for you. It's my own version, and I use this myself for every character I create. There's room for a picture or two of your character, and it should help you create believable characters without overdoing it (:

How do you create your characters? Do you have a method, or is there something you struggle with every time? I'll stick around for a while, so ask away!

4 Black-Authored Books to Read ASAP

Today’s post is going to be a little different. Instead of talking about writing, I’m sharing some book recommendations. February is Black History Month, and in honor of that, I’m reading books by authors of color.

If you, like me, want to celebrate talented people who aren’t often celebrated by mainstream media outlets, check out some of these book recommendations.

32075671.jpg

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Young Adult Contemporary

Goodreads summary:

Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.

Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil's name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.

But what Starr does or does not say could upend her community. It could also endanger her life.

My reaction: This book made me feel a million different things, and I bawled like a baby. Please read this book.

undergound-railroad.jpg

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Adult Historical Fiction

Goodreads summary:

Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hellish for all the slaves but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood - where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned and, though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.

In Whitehead's ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor - engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar's first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven - but the city's placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. Even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.

As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman's ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.

My reaction: I love, love, love this novel. Colson Whitehead is going places. Read this book right now.

32920226.jpg

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Adult Literary Fiction

Goodreads summary:

An intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle, Sing, Unburied, Sing examines the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power – and limitations – of family bonds. 

Jojo is thirteen years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. His mother, Leonie, is in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is black and her children’s father is white. Embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances, she wants to be a better mother, but can’t put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use. 

When the children’s father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and a friend into her car and drives north to the heart of Mississippi and Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary. At Parchman, there is another boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all of the ugly history of the South with him in his wandering. He too has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, about legacies, about violence, about love. 

Rich with Ward’s distinctive, lyrical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing brings the archetypal road novel into rural twenty-first century America. It is a majestic new work from an extraordinary and singular author.

My reaction: Confession time: I have yet to read this book. Nevertheless, it’s at the top of my list.

18713041.jpg

Endangered by Lamar Giles
YA Mystery

Goodreads summary:

The one secret she cares about keeping—her identity—is about to be exposed. Unless Lauren "Panda" Daniels—an anonymous photoblogger who specializes in busting classmates and teachers in compromising positions—plays along with her blackmailer's little game of Dare or . . . Dare.

But when the game turns deadly, Panda doesn't know what to do. And she may need to step out of the shadows to save herself . . . and everyone else on the Admirer's hit list.

My reaction: I couldn’t put this book down, and it kept me guessing the whole way through. If you like mysteries too, you don’t want to miss this one.

Of course, these are just some of the many fantastic books by black authors out there that deserve your consideration. For more books by authors of color, check out this list on Buzzfeed and this one from The Root.

What are your favorite black-authored books? 

Tweet tweet:

What are your favorite black-authored books? Check out some recs from @brimorganbooks. (Click to tweet)

Moving On

 Photo credit:  Monika  on Flickr

Photo credit: Monika on Flickr

Quick life update blog post because next weekend I’ll be moving into my own place. I’ve been living with my parents and am looking forward to being independent once again. There’s nothing quite like having your own space to decorate and do with as you please.

I’m also looking forward to having full control over my schedule. Being able to come home and write or edit without other people around will be nice. I love people, but sometimes I need solitude to work. If I can get into a good routine in my new place, I know I can thrive.

I'm so thankful for the writing community on Twitter and the internet in general. I'd never be where I am as a writer without the encouragement of my online friends. I'm also thankful for my critique partner Amanda—who is a phenomenal writer in her own right. We're putting out a horror anthology this year about the seven deadly sins and seven heavenly virtues. Look out for that if you like spooky things! Also, we're recording a vlog about our friendship and collaboration!

I am so excited to be moving on to this next phase in my life, and I can't wait to share the journey with you. Also, if we're friends and you'd like to send me a card or anything, email me or drop me a DM on Twitter, and I'll give you my address! I want to fill this new home with love and light and positive energy, and I can't do that on my own.

What are you excited for right now?

Tweet tweet:

What's next for author @brimorganbooks? A move, and other changes. (Click to tweet)

Vlog: My Struggle with Anxiety

So uploading this video... made me kinda anxious??? Anyway, here it is. To everyone who asked for this, I hope it helps you somehow. Remember: you're stronger than you think. Go easy on yourself. And I promise you're never, ever alone.

RELATED LINKS:

  • Crisis text line: Text HELP to 741-741 if you don't feel comfortable calling someone.
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Helpline: 1-800-950-NAMI (6264)
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Two Techniques for Building Realistic Characters

 Photo credit:  Gianfranco Goria  on Flickr

Photo credit: Gianfranco Goria on Flickr

My biggest focus for this round of WIP edits has been characterization. I’m immensely thankful for my friend and editor Coryl’s insight on this topic—when I asked them for resources, they were more than happy to provide.

One of the places they directed me was author K. M. Weiland’s website. For those of you who aren’t familiar with her website, you need to check it out immediately. She not only offers information about her books, but also tips, tricks, and advice for writers of all skill levels. Naturally, I was most drawn to her posts about character-building. According to Weiland, most of what makes a good character arc in a story can be summed up as follows: What lie does the character believe about themself?

This single question changed my whole approach to character development and helped me come up with more well-rounded characters. In my novel Reflections, for example, Rama believes that she isn’t good for anything after her assault, and that she’ll never see her body the same way again. Without giving too much away, that’s all proven false by the end of the novel.

Another tactic that changed my character-building for the better is author and YouTuber Jenna Moreci’s character templates. For some reason or other, most character worksheets don’t help me. They’re almost always far too detailed, and then I get distracted. After watching this video, I gave Jenna’s method a shot. It’s still a decent bit of work, but nowhere near as complicated as it used to be. Now, there’s also the added bonus of viewing my characters as full-fledged individuals with goals, histories, secrets, and complicated relationships.

If you’re struggling to develop fully formed characters, give one (or both) of these two different strategies a try. Also, if you have any tips for building characters, feel free to share them with me!

What do you think of these character-building tips? What advice do you have for creating realistic characters?

Tweet tweet:

“What lie does your character believe about themself?” (Click to tweet)

My Goals for 2018

 Photo credit:  Manu Dreil  on Flickr

Photo credit: Manu Dreil on Flickr

How wild is it that it’s 2018 now? (And honestly, praise be.) I’d planned to do this post in January, but now is so much better. At the beginning of every year, I try to come up with a list of things to check off in the new year. Right now, that means strengthening my self-discipline as an artist.

Whether you’re a writer or a lawyer or something else, I'll bet you've made some new year’s resolutions. Like me, you might have some negative associations with the concept. Instead of using “resolution,” why not give “goal” a try? Personally, I have a few goals this year:

  1. Finish Girls’ School. I’m still on the second draft, and I really think I want to query this one. That terrifies me, but we’ll see what happens. I don’t want to do this all on my own anymore.

  2. Move into my new apartment. February 17! (If we talk to each other a lot and you’d like my mailing address, feel free to reach out.)

  3. List the Reflections audiobook. After having (finally!) found a great narrator, I’m thrilled to say that this audiobook should be available by summer.

  4. Query Girls’ School. Just "query." Focusing on the only part of the process within my control. After writing the query letter and sending the MS to agents, it’s out of my hands.

  5. Read 1-2 books per week. I want to become a better writer, so I’m going to read more books. Also, books are neato.

  6. Determine a consistent posting schedule. Not only for this blog, but also for YouTube and my newsletter. I’m busy, but not too busy to connect with friends and readers.

  7. Draft a new project. Not quite sure which one yet, but I’m thinking it’ll be a YA thriller or horror novel.

  8. Publish horror anthology with my critique partner. Sorry, Amanda! We’re still doing this! I’m just not sure of the timeline right now.

  9. Audition for a theatrical production. I miss the theatre like crazy. I’m putting myself out there this year and going out for more auditions.

  10. Learn to make bath bombs. Because I love bath bombs. Also because selling them could be a new side hustle.

Most of my goals relate to writing, but that’s because I’m trying to make more room in my life for the work that most fuels me. This year I’m making my art my big focus. I encourage you to do the same.

What are some of your goals for this year? I’d love to hear from you!

Tweet tweet:

What goals have you set for 2018? Author @brimorganbooks is sharing some of hers. (Click to tweet)

Vlog: The Enfield Poltergeist

This video is the first of (hopefully) many spooky ones to come. Today, I’m going to tell you a little about the Enfield poltergeist, and why it’s one of the most controversial paranormal cases to date.

What true crime case, unsolved mystery, or paranormal event should I cover next?

Vlog: Recap: TOUCH and Attending a Performance

I got to watch people performing my play! I still can't believe that happened, y'all. You should also watch this video if you either a) haven't read my play or b) don't know what it's about.

RELATED LINKS:

Have you read or seen Touch? What did you think?

Tweet tweet:

Author and playwright @brimorganbooks got to see her play performed, and she had a lot of feelings. (Click to tweet)

Guest Post by Richard Moore: Follow the Little Voice

Hi everyone, it's Briana! I've had a hectic month, so today's post is from Richard Moore, and it's about doing the things that fuel your creative soul. I'll have a brand-new post for you sometime next week!

Guest Post_ Follow the Little Voice.png

When I was 14 I remember I would spend my lunchtimes rebuilding old PCs so I could try and sell them. I also programmed my own (rather average) operating system. I'm glad I followed what I was interested in, rather than what others suggested I should be doing. I was often called a geek but I remember it as such a fulfilling time.

Later, when I started selling, I spent money and time at weekends on courses and guidance to improve myself. Again, I got a weird reception on this and it was suggested I should just be chilling at home on the weekends rather than out learning. I thought about it but usually I just didn't want to. So I didn't.

Now, if I'm into something I dive deep into it and make that interest into something that can improve my world. There is belief that we should "do" a certain thing—something that fits in.

But if you let the voice within speak up a little, you often find there is great fulfillment in something completely different.

Whatever that is, run with it.

Richard Moore

Richard Moore originally worked 60 hour weeks in the City of London, before deciding to build his own businesses and help others do the same.

After building companies from the trenches up, by taking ownership of sales teams, coaching leadership roles and consulting with multi-hundred million pound organisations, Richard created his own company to help others get massive traction as they launched their businesses.

As he did this, Richard invested in many of the companies he helped to create and shared with the world his views on business, through the weekly live Q&A‘s he runs online, to speaking gigs in front of business owners in his space and his weekly blog. Richard also created products such as the EightStepStartup course, the Basics of Sales course and direct mentoring of established businesses.

How to Survive a Transition Period

We've all been through periods in life where everything is up in the air, for the most part. You might be between jobs right now, or maybe you're looking for a new apartment or a new relationship. Whatever the case, you might be feeling lost, helpless, and confused. But I want you to know this: you are not alone.

I'm not where I thought I'd be three months ago. Sometimes that terrifies me. Other times, it's exciting. My mood shifts every day. As a perfectionist and a self-professed control freak, this is difficult for me. Nothing is going the way I planned, and sometimes, I feel stuck, unmotivated, and anxious about my current situation.

How to Survive a Transition Period

In moments of helplessness, you might feel as though you'll never get "unstuck," or that you'll be where you are for the rest of your life. Of course, that's not the case. No matter how confused, anxious, or lost you may be feeling right now, you are not alone, and this transition period will end. Nothing lasts forever, after all.

But while you're in the midst of a difficult phase, there are some things you can do to make your life a little easier. Here are a few strategies I've discovered for how to survive a transition period in life.

1. LIST YOUR STRESSES

The next time you feel anxious or upset about the course your life has taken, sit down and make a list (bonus points for writing it out on paper) of all your current stressors. An example from my own life might say, "Not enough writing time, don't have my own apartment, live far from friends" and things of that nature. No matter how silly or small what's stressing you out seems, I want you to write it down. Once you've got your list, it's time to move on to...

2. CIRCLE EVERYTHING YOU CAN CHANGE

Chances are, there are several things on your list that are outside your control, such as the deteriorating health of a loved one, suffering from a chronic illness, or anything like that. For this exercise, I want you to try to ignore those points. We're only going to focus on what's within our power to change. Let's look at my examples: writing time, apartment, and distance from friends. These are all within my power to change, regardless of how hard it might be to do so. After you've figured out what you can change, feel free to...

3. LIST POTENTIAL NEXT STEPS

When you've figured out what you can change, you should decide how exactly you want it to change. For me, with writing time, I want to write more. If I make that goal more specific, it means I want to edit or draft at least 1,000 words each day, regardless of the project I have going at the moment. Some next steps toward that goal would be analyzing my time, determining what can be cut, tracking my writing progress, telling friends and loved ones, and perhaps outsourcing some tasks. When you know what all you need to do, go ahead and...

4. DETERMINE ORDER AND PRIORITY

Now that you have your next steps, what needs to be done first? Let's go again with my writing example. I need to track my time and determine what can be cut from my life to make time for writing. I need to outsource some tasks to make more time for writing, and tell friends and loved ones that I'm taking time for myself each day, so they'll know not to disturb me. I also need to track my progress once I'm writing regularly, to make sure my system is as efficient as possible. So, my order and priority list might look something like this:

  1. Track time spent every hour of every day.
  2. Analyze time, determine what can be cut or outsourced.
  3. Cut any distractions or necessary tasks, outsource others.
  4. Determine writing schedule and block off time.
  5. Tell loved ones of my time block.
  6. Write!
  7. Keep track of writing progress and analyze to determine maximum efficiency.

Not too shabby, right? As soon as you've listed everything out, you can always break it down into smaller steps too, if need be. But when you've written out your list, it's time to...

5. ATTACK THE LIST

From here, all you have to do is tackle each item on the list, one at a time, until you accomplish your goal. That's not so bad now, is it? If you want extra productivity and goal-setting points, you can also add self-imposed deadlines. So for me, let's say I want to track all my time every day this week, and start my analysis on Saturday. Self-imposed deadlines are a great way to help you stay motivated and on track.

Pro tip: Tackle one goal at a time! Although it might be thrilling to try to change everything at once, you're much more likely to see success through building habits one by one. Wait until you reach one goal before rushing on to the next one. :)

I also recommend writing your goals out, including the order and priority of your next steps, and keeping them somewhere you can see them every day. That way, you can be constantly reminded where you might be heading, instead of where you are.

What are your tips for staying focused on your goals?

Film Review: MOMMY DEAD AND DEAREST

MOMMY DEAD AND DEAREST.png

The date is June 14, 2015. A young woman diagnosed with over a dozen serious medical condition goes missing after the violent, unexpected death of her mother, and an explicit Facebook status. As police and media scramble to figure out what went wrong, reports come flooding in—the girl is safe… but nothing here is as it seems. The girl is much older than her mother claimed, she does not suffer from any of the ailments listed on her records, and she can walk without assistance. What’s more, as the lies unfold, police suspect she may have more to do with the murder than they first thought.

About the Murder

The story of Claudinnea “Dee Dee” and Gypsy Rose Blancharde is one of the most shocking true-crime events in recent memory. I first learned of the murder in a Sword & Scale episode (if you’re not listening to this podcast, you should be). In a classic yet severe case of “Munchausen by Proxy” Syndrome, perpetuated by a narcissist, Dee Dee lied about Gypsy’s health, inventing chronic and sometimes terminal illnesses to garner sympathy, attention, and monetary gifts. Gypsy’s “conditions” also allowed the family to receive complimentary trips to Disney World, free flights all over the country, and a no-strings-attached Habitat for Humanity house. The rabbit hole goes much further down, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll end it there. If you want a more in-depth exploration, I recommend you listen to the podcast episode or watch the documentary, which I thought was excellent.

My Review

The film garnered some criticism for its “late-night investigation expose” approach, but I’m not sure that’s warranted. On the whole, I thought the documentary did an excellent job not only illustrating the systematic abuse that led Gypsy Rose and her boyfriend to commit murder, but also reporting on the extent of the crime and how it has affected the lives of the people involved. Though the film did paint Gypsy in a sympathetic light at times, it never excused or condoned her actions.

If you’re interested in true crime, and especially the Gypsy Rose Blancharde case, this is one documentary worth streaming this weekend. Want even more spooky things in your life? Sign up for my newsletter for writing progress updates, and check back on the blog each week for more horror, true crime, writing, and unsolved mystery posts.

Mommy Dead and Dearest is available on HBO Go and HBO Now.

What do you think about this case? What are your favorite crime documentaries?

7 Horror Movies that Terrified Me

When it  comes to horror movies, I have discerning tastes. I'm not a huge fan of slasher films, and I prefer suspense, slow builds, and overall eerie atmosphere to gore and jump scares. Horror is one of my favorite genres to consume, in all its various forms. That said, I do have my favorites. Here are seven (fairly) recent horror films that scared the pants off me.

Paranormal Activity (2007)
Directed by Oren Peli

Summary:

After a young, middle class couple moves into a suburban 'starter' tract house, they become increasingly disturbed by a presence that may or may not be somehow demonic but is certainly most active in the middle of the night. Especially when they sleep. Or try to.

What got me most: I have a soft spot for found footage, and this one scared my pants off. I had to fall asleep watching cartoons.

Last Shift (2014)
Directed by Anthony DiBlasi

Summary:

From director Anthony DiBlasi comes a Manson inspired horror film centering around a transitioning police station. Officer Jessica Loren has been assigned to wait for a Hazmat team to pick up bio-hazardous waste from the station's armory. But unbeknownst to Jessica, cult Leader John Michael Paymon has haunted the department ever since he and two of this followers committed suicide a year ago to date. And now, Jessica is about to find out how dangerous they can be when she's left alone on this Last Shift.

What got me most: I wasn't expecting this movie to scare me. I also don't remember any movie scaring me as badly as this one did. I'm not sure what happened, but I think you should watch it. With the lights off. By yourself.

The Conjuring (2013)
Directed by James Wan

Summary:

In 1971, Carolyn and Roger Perron move their family into a dilapidated Rhode Island farm house and soon strange things start happening around it with escalating nightmarish terror. In desperation, Carolyn contacts the noted paranormal investigators, Ed and Lorraine Warren, to examine the house. What the Warrens discover is a whole area steeped in a satanic haunting that is now targeting the Perron family wherever they go. To stop this evil, the Warrens will have to call upon all their skills and spiritual strength to defeat this spectral menace at its source that threatens to destroy everyone involved.

What got me most: "Based on a true story." No. Thank. You.

The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Directed by Daniel MyrickEduardo Sánchez

Summary:

Three film students travel to Maryland to make a student film about a local urban legend... The Blair Witch. The three went into the woods on a two day hike to find the Blair Witch, and never came back. One year later, the students film and video were found in the woods. The footage was compiled and made into a movie. The Blair Witch Project.

What got me most: Arguably the most iconic found-footage horror film ever, this movie scared the pants off me because it felt so real. Kids running scared in the middle of the woods? Yeah, that kind of thing could happen. No thanks.

Sinister (2012)
Directed by Scott Derrickson

Summary:

True-crime writer Ellison Oswalt moves himself and his family into a house where a horrific crime took place earlier, but his family doesn't know. He begins researching the crime so that he can write a new book about it to help his flailing career. He uses some "snuff" film footage he finds in the house to help him in his research, but he soon finds more than he bargained for. There is a figure in each of the films but who or what is it? As a result, his family start to suffer (as does he) and things take a turn for the worse. Will they survive?

What got me most: Scott Derrickson can fight me. Home videos? Lawn mower? Nope and nope.

The Orphanage (2007)
Directed by J. A. Bayona

Summary:

A woman brings her family back to her childhood home, which used to be an orphanage for handicapped children. Before long, her son starts to communicate with an invisible new friend.

What got me most: Creepy little children. And that ending? What the hell? Pro tip: watch it in Spanish with English subtitles. So much better than the dubbed version.

It Follows (2014)
Directed by David Robert Mitchell

Summary:

For nineteen-year-old Jay, Autumn should be about school, boys and week-ends out at the lake. But after a seemingly innocent sexual encounter, she finds herself plagued by strange visions and the inescapable sense that someone, something, is following her. Faced with this burden, Jay and her friends must find a way to escape the horrors, that seem to be only a few steps behind.

What got me most: It can be anyone. Anywhere. And it moves so slowly, but it's terrifying.

If you're looking for a fierce, frightening flick, check out one of my picks. Want even more spooky things in your life? Sign up for my newsletter for writing progress updates, and check back on the blog each week for more horror, true crime, and unsolved mystery posts.

Tell me, what are some of your favorite horror films?

5 Scary Reads on My TBR List

October is coming, and that's pretty neat, because it's my favorite month for a number of reasons. I love the way the air feels and smells in October, the crispness and crunch of autumn leaves under your feet. I love the way the light falls and the hum of people in pumpkin patches. Most of all, though, I love the widespread renewed enthusiasm for forgotten spooky things. Since one of my favorite things to do is read, especially scary books, I thought I'd compile a list of books I'm most excited to read by Halloween.

A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
Adult Horror

Goodreads summary:

The lives of the Barretts, a normal suburban New England family, are torn apart when fourteen-year-old Marjorie begins to display signs of acute schizophrenia.

To her parents' despair, the doctors are unable to stop Marjorie's descent into madness. As their stable home devolves into a house of horrors, they reluctantly turn to a local Catholic priest for help. Father Wanderly suggests an exorcism; he believes the vulnerable teenager is the victim of demonic possession. He also contacts a production company that is eager to document the Barretts' plight. With John, Marjorie's father, out of work for more than a year and the medical bills looming, the family agrees to be filmed, and soon find themselves the unwitting stars of The Possession, a hit reality television show. When events in the Barrett household explode in tragedy, the show and the shocking incidents it captures become the stuff of urban legend.

Fifteen years later, a bestselling writer interviews Marjorie's younger sister, Merry. As she recalls those long ago events that took place when she was just eight years old, long-buried secrets and painful memories that clash with what was broadcast on television begin to surface—and a mind-bending tale of psychological horror is unleashed, raising vexing questions about memory and reality, science and religion, and the very nature of evil.

What sold me: The Master of Horror's own recommendation.

The Stand by Stephen King
Adult Horror

Goodreads summary:

This is the way the world ends: with a nanosecond of computer error in a Defense Department laboratory and a million casual contacts that form the links in a chain letter of death.

And here is the bleak new world of the day after: a world stripped of its institutions and emptied of 99 percent of its people. A world in which a handful of panicky survivors choose sides or are chosen. A world in which good rides on the frail shoulders of the 108-year-old Mother Abigail and the worst nightmares of evil are embodied in a man with a lethal smile and unspeakable powers: Randall Flagg, the dark man.

What sold me: The fifteen(!) people who told me I had to read this book if I really loved Stephen King.

Final Girls by Riley Sager
Adult Thriller

Goodreads summary:

Ten years ago, college student Quincy Carpenter went on vacation with five friends and came back alone, the only survivor of a horror movie–scale massacre. In an instant, she became a member of a club no one wants to belong to—a group of similar survivors known in the press as the Final Girls. Lisa, who lost nine sorority sisters to a college dropout's knife; Sam, who went up against the Sack Man during her shift at the Nightlight Inn; and now Quincy, who ran bleeding through the woods to escape Pine Cottage and the man she refers to only as Him. The three girls are all attempting to put their nightmares behind them, and, with that, one another. Despite the media's attempts, they never meet.

Now, Quincy is doing well—maybe even great, thanks to her Xanax prescription. She has a caring almost-fiancé, Jeff; a popular baking blog; a beautiful apartment; and a therapeutic presence in Coop, the police officer who saved her life all those years ago. Her memory won’t even allow her to recall the events of that night; the past is in the past. 

That is, until Lisa, the first Final Girl, is found dead in her bathtub, wrists slit, and Sam, the second, appears on Quincy's doorstep. Blowing through Quincy's life like a whirlwind, Sam seems intent on making Quincy relive the past, with increasingly dire consequences, all of which makes Quincy question why Sam is really seeking her out. And when new details about Lisa's death come to light, Quincy's life becomes a race against time as she tries to unravel Sam's truths from her lies, evade the police and hungry reporters, and, most crucially, remember what really happened at Pine Cottage, before what was started ten years ago is finished.

What sold me: Blurb by Stephen King!

Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips
Adult Thriller

Goodreads summary:

An electrifying novel about the primal and unyielding bond between a mother and her son, and the lengths she’ll go to protect him.

The zoo is nearly empty as Joan and her four-year-old son soak up the last few moments of playtime. They are happy, and the day has been close to perfect. But what Joan sees as she hustles her son toward the exit gate minutes before closing time sends her sprinting back into the zoo, her child in her arms. And for the next three hours—the entire scope of the novel—she keeps on running.

Joan’s intimate knowledge of her son and of the zoo itself—the hidden pathways and under-renovation exhibits, the best spots on the carousel and overstocked snack machines—is all that keeps them a step ahead of danger.

What sold me: The cover, if I'm being honest.

Pretty Girls by Karin Slaughter
Adult Mystery/Thriller

Goodreads summary:

#1 internationally bestselling author Karin Slaughter returns with a sophisticated and chilling psychological thriller of dangerous secrets, cold vengeance, and unexpected absolution, in which two estranged sisters must come together to find truth about two harrowing tragedies, twenty years apart, that devastate their lives.

Sisters. Strangers. Survivors.

More than twenty years ago, Claire and Lydia's teenaged sister Julia vanished without a trace. The two women have not spoken since, and now their lives could not be more different. Claire is the glamorous trophy wife of an Atlanta millionaire. Lydia, a single mother, dates an ex-con and struggles to make ends meet. But neither has recovered from the horror and heartbreak of their shared loss—a devastating wound that's cruelly ripped open when Claire's husband is killed.

The disappearance of a teenage girl and the murder of a middle-aged man, almost a quarter-century apart: what could connect them? Forming a wary truce, the surviving sisters look to the past to find the truth, unearthing the secrets that destroyed their family all those years ago . . . and uncovering the possibility of redemption, and revenge, where they least expect it.

Powerful, poignant, and utterly gripping, packed with indelible characters and unforgettable twists, Pretty Girls is a masterful thriller from one of the finest suspense writers working today.

What sold me: The reviews.

These are just a few of the scary books that are on my to-be-read list. Sign up for my newsletter for writing progress updates, and check back on the blog each week for more horror, true crime, and unsolved mystery posts.

3 Unsolved Mysteries I'm Dying to Write About

What if you disappeared today, on your way home from work or school?  It's something none of us want to think about happening, but it's entirely possible. It happens every year—millions of people all over the world go missing, never to be seen or heard from again. Throughout history, we've heard strange accounts of unexplained disappearances, people vanishing without a trace, strange and gruesome murders, and other unsolved mysteries. What keeps us coming back to them? I'll tell you, along with sharing some of my top three favorite cases that have yet to be concluded—cases I might one day write novels about.

What's the Appeal of Unsolved Mysteries?

When was the last time that you were really, truly terrified? For most people, it can take several minutes to remember. In the modern world, we often like to think we're exempt from primal fears—exempt from tragedy. But even with all our security systems, technology, and so-called wisdom, we can never be one-hundred-percent safe from what lurks in the darkness just behind our houses.

We love unsolved mysteries because they remind us of the darker, deadlier parts of humanity—while lulling us into thinking it could never happen to us. Scary stories give us all the adrenaline with none of the risk. Therein lies their appeal.

Scary stories give us all the adrenaline with none of the risk. (Tweet this)

3 Great Reasons to Sleep with the Lights On

  1. The Dyatlov Pass Incident. After watching the movie Devil's Pass (2013)I became much more interested in this bizarre event. In the Ural Mountains of Russia in 1959, the bodies of nine hikers were discovered in the snow, having tore open their tents and sprinted into the cold for no apparent reason. As the investigation progressed, it was determined that six of the group members died from hypothermia, with the remaining three having succumbed to fatal injuries. Possible explanations for the hikers' deaths include an avalanche, infrasound, military tests, paradoxical undressing, a cryptozoological/extraterrestrial encounter, and more. All investigators could conclude was that the hikers died as the result of an "unknown compelling force." The case was closed in the 1970s, but a group of people are currently trying to convince the government to reopen it.

  2. The East Area Rapist/Original Night Stalker/Golden State Killer. I learned about this killer only recently, but I'm pretty sure my next manuscript is going to be about him. Throughout the mid-1970s, this man committed fifty rapes in Northern California. Between 1979 and 1986, he murdered twelve people in Southern California. It took investigators a long time to realize the rapes and murders were connected. The Unresolved Podcast did a couple of great episodes on this killer, as did Casefile, if you'd like to learn more. The Original Night Stalker has never been apprehended, and could very well still be alive. As of 2016, the FBI is spearheading a nationwide push to expose the perpetrator, offering a $50,000 reward for his capture.

  3. The murder of JonBenét Ramsey. I'd be surprised if you haven't heard anything about this one. JonBenét Patricia Ramsey was a child beauty pageant queen who had her life cut short at age six. After the child was reported missing, her parents received a ransom note, allegedly from JonBenét's kidnapper. However, eight hours later, the girl's body was discovered in the family's basement. Since she was discovered with severe cranial damage and with a garrote around her neck, her death was classified as a homicide. Of course, the Ramseys denied any and all involvement in their daughter's death. The most popular theory posits that her brother, Burke, committed the murder, with JonBenét's parents helping to cover it up. The case remains an open investigation with the Boulder Police Department.

I could have included so many more unsolved mysteries—it was hard to limit myself! What do you think of these? Did your favorite make the list? Subscribe to my newsletter for updates on my writing progress, and stay tuned for more articles on horror, true crime, unsolved mysteries, and the unknown.

You Can Now Read Reflections on Wattpad

I've been on Wattpad for several years now, but I've only recently begun participating in the community and uploading my books. As of this post, I'm a self-published author, which means I retain the rights to my work. Therefore, I can distribute my novels however I see fit—I can even offer them to readers for free on Wattpad. If you haven't heard of Wattpad, it's one of the most popular mobile publishing platforms worldwide, and it's making a big splash in the book-reading and -writing world.

Wattpad lets you read free, full-length books

Imagine a world in which anyone could write a book, upload it, and get instant feedback and engagement from mobile readers. Sound too good to be true? It's not.

Recently, I listened to an episode of The Creative Penn podcast titled "Mobile, Multimedia, And An Audience Of Voracious Readers." In it, professional author and speaker Joanna Penn interviews Ashleigh Gardner, head of partnerships on Wattpad, about the merits of the digital platform, as well as how it serves to boost authors' sales and exposure. While I recommend you listen to the entire episode, one comment in particular stuck out to me:

You build your audience, you build your fan base and you're able to sell them different things in different ways...we have launched something called Wattpad Futures. It's not open to all users, it's really targeted at the top 5% of writers on the platform. It lets them make money by people who are reading their stories. They have new premium ads that go into those stories that every time someone watches it, similar to YouTube's model for their creators, that they're getting paid for that usage. There are some authors that are making upwards of 10,000 in a certain, like within a quarter just based on that reading time.

Gardner also had this to say about the platform:

People are spending over 15 billion minutes reading every month so it's a huge audience. (Tweet this)

That got me thinking: Why am I not doing more publishing on Wattpad?

How I'm Using Wattpad As an Author

With that said, I'm thrilled to announce that my latest novel, Reflections, is now available to read in full—for free—on Wattpad. I have my other novel, Blood and Water, available to read there as well. It's the release/new edition, so if you read the first edition, definitely check this one out. (I think you'll be pleasantly surprised with the changes I've made. You can also read Touch: A One-Act Play and my short story "Teacher's Pet." If you do read, please consider voting, sharing, and leaving a comment or review. All the works on my profile have been completed.

Many writers on Wattpad choose to publish chapters as they write them, but that causes too much anxiety for me. I'm not sure I'll ever convert to that model. At any rate, I hope to use Wattpad more in the forseeable future. Follow me there, and stay tuned for more updates on my writing.

REFLECTIONS Is Out! Here's an Excerpt

IMG_2266.JPG

My YA urban fantasy/mystery novel Reflections is now available in paperback and ebook form! You can also add the book on Goodreads. Here's a little preview for you.

1 | THROUGH THE WOODS

The hot dressing room made Ramachandra “Rama” Ganeshan sweat, but not because of the temperature.

She and her best friend Myra Hare had been at the mall for hours. Myra had a dozen outfits stuffed into bags on her arm, but Rama hadn’t found a single thing she liked.

She never found anything she liked anymore.

The department-store dressing room pushed on Rama from all sides. Why was it so small? Either the air conditioning had broken, or she’d lost her coping skills. Sweat slicked her face, ran down her neck, and kissed the contour of her spine. She scowled at herself.

Standing in front of the dressing-room mirror, Rama hated her reflection. The too-tight, too-low, too-short dress dug into her thighs.

Disgusting.

As she studied her reflection, her stomach clenched. If only the ground would swallow her before Myra asked what was wrong.

There were too many questions. Rama didn’t have the answers.

Myra rapped against the door. “Can I come in?”

“Hang on a second.” Rama smoothed the dress over her stomach. Every bulge resisted the fabric. She’d never ask Myra for the next size up. “I’m changing back into my clothes. Not getting this one either.”

“Rama,” Myra said, “that’s like, the eighteenth outfit.”

“I know,” she said. “I’m sorry. Give me a minute to change back.”

Myra sighed.

Guilt gnawed at Rama. Myra had proposed the shopping trip. They didn’t see much of each other. Myra did cheerleading, and Rama had three AP courses. She seldom left the house. Helping her parents with the restaurant kept her busy most nights. Social life? Forget it.

To make matters worse, so many teenage girls had been murdered in the past year that the mayor of Aldale, West Virginia, established a curfew for minors. No other mayor had ever imposed a curfew, but Mayor Paulson said it was necessary.

Aldale had three stoplights. An hour away Morgantown boasted shops and restaurants and West Virginia University, where Rama hoped to attend medical school someday. Two years ago, at fourteen, she’d joined other gifted students auditing lectures and shadowing residents. She’d pressed her face against the glass above an operating theater, breathless as a surgeon held a heart in his hands.

In that moment, she’d decided to become a surgeon too.

Though it wasn’t far from Morgantown, Aldale might as well have been centuries away. Morgantown wasn’t huge, but it had chain restaurants. It had a mall, a real one, and a Walmart.

Aldale didn’t have anything like that. Their mall didn’t count. If Rama or her parents needed anything, they had to go down to the drugstore. John Lewis Finster had opened Finster’s Drug Shoppe in the 1950s. It housed a dusty, decrepit soda fountain with a lunch counter and everything in the center of the store. If anyone had ever eaten there, Rama didn’t believe it.

Like everything else in town, it had seen better days.

Everyone went to Finster’s to get almost anything—prescriptions, toiletries, gifts, condoms. Once, Rama had seen Jessica Spurlock in the family planning aisle. Jessica hadn’t taken anything, and even if she had, who would believe it?

Jessica epitomized the small-town “good girl” ideal. Imagine if someone caught her buying condoms when she was “waiting for marriage.”

Somehow, she convinced her parents to let her spend nights with her boyfriend.

She got to stay out all night, even with the curfew. Even though girls like Jessica were murdered without explanation.

The dead girls had been Rama’s age, classmates and friends. Girls she saw in town, flitting from store to store, laughing in the park, sitting in her family’s restaurant. Smiling, shining faces. Smooth skin and bright eyes and white, even teeth.

They had been girls Rama envied, ones she would have given anything to look like. All her life, she’d assumed the world was easier for pretty people. All her life, she’d been wrong.

Even in Aldale, violence could happen.

Rama knew better than anyone else.

Myra’s parents didn’t buy it. Danger lurked everywhere. Their children were smart. Sure, they should be careful, but the mayor had gone too far. Nothing like this had ever happened in Aldale. Myra’s parents thumbed their noses at the rules and let their daughter roam. They preferred a lax parenting style, and sent Myra to the mall alone, armed with their credit card. They never asked questions.

“Let’s go to the mall today,” Myra had said after class. “You need to get out.”

For some reason, Rama went along with the plan. Myra was right.

Myra knew best. That truth underscored their whole friendship. Since childhood, she’d “helped” Rama, telling her what to wear, where to shop, and who to spend time with. Myra had more social clout, so Rama trusted her.

Besides, Myra loved her. She wanted the best for Rama—even if Rama didn’t know what that was herself.

In the dressing room then, Rama wasn’t convinced. Myra was wrong. The dress scratched her skin, exposed the scar below her collarbone, and clung to her hips.

She was a pig.

Rama’s fingers brushed her scar. Myra had seen it. Nobody else. They’d never talked about it. Rama hoped they never would.

Months ago, Myra asked Rama why she’d cut her hair. Rama hadn’t said a word. It was past her shoulders now, but still shorter than it had ever been. When she stopped wearing jewelry, Myra said nothing. And when she showed up sans makeup on the first day of school, Myra kept silent.

If she had suspicions, she didn’t say so.

Rama’s parents weren’t so thoughtful.

“Why can’t you dress like you used to?” her mother had asked. “Myra dresses well. Let her take you shopping.”

“Your mother’s right,” her father said. “You should spend more time with Myra.”

In the present, Rama swallowed the lump in her throat. The walls of the dressing room closed in around her—what if the ceiling caved in? She would be crushed or suffocate in the nation’s smallest mall.

No one would miss her—not even Myra, who’d pressured her to go in the first place.

“You all right?” Myra asked.

“Fine,” Rama lied. “I’m hungry is all.”

“It’s making you cranky.”

“I know, and I’m sorry. Look, can we go?” She tugged the hem of the dress. “I don’t want this.”

Myra sighed again. “You said you needed new clothes. We can’t leave until you find some.”

“I hate everything I try on.” Rama pulled the dress off and tossed it on the chair. A plastic hanger clattered to the ground. Rama stooped to pick it up. Her hair fell in her face. “No point staying here if I don’t want to get a dress.”

“I’ll find you something else then. Let me try, okay?”

Rama studied herself in the mirror again. Stretch marks pulled across her hips and thighs, dipping into her ragged waistband. How long had she had those panties? The underwire of her bra poked out on one side. Her hair, disheveled, dull, and tangled, elicited a frown.

If only she could have been anyone else.

Anyone who wasn’t her or anybody like her.

Myra returned with an armful of clothing. She knocked on the door, and Rama paused a minute before opening it. Myra shoved the clothing in. Rama dropped the pile of clothes on the chair. From what she could tell, they all fit too tight, showed too much skin, drew too much attention. What was Myra thinking?

“Well?” Myra asked.

“Close the door.” Rama would never wear any of it. Myra didn’t understand.

No one did.

“Something’s wrong,” Myra said.

“It’s nothing,” Rama answered.

“I wish you’d tell me what’s bothering you.”

Rama inhaled.

“It’s not about the clothes,” Myra said.

“No, it’s not.” Rama squeezed her eyes shut, willed away tears. In her mind’s eye, he loomed—the man with the mustache. Chicken tikka masala. Fear unfurled like a banner.

“Ramachandra.”

She opened her eyes.

Myra smiled. “If you don’t love your body, there’s no way you can be happy.”

Myra’s legs and curves were the stuff of magazines. She’d never had a pimple.

Rama sniffed and covered her scar. She could never tell Myra what had happened that day.

Myra took the clothes from Rama. “You win, all right? We’ll go.”

“I appreciate your help.”

“It’s nothing,” Myra said. “We’ll get milkshakes on the way. Grab your bike. I’ll drive you.”

That morning, Rama had biked to school. Myra drove them to the mall.

Rama wanted to be alone.

“I’m biking home. I need the fresh air.”

“By yourself?”

“It’s all right.”

“With the murders?”

“I’ll be fine.”

“How can you be so sure?”

Rama exhaled. “I’m going straight home, no stops on the way. It’s not dark yet. I need to think. Just let me take my bike.”

Myra didn’t press her. “Suit yourself. Let’s go, girl.”

 

After Myra and Rama separated, Rama rode her bicycle through the forest behind the mall. She’d chosen the long way home—a half-hour trek—but that was good. She needed to think. Once she got home, she wouldn’t have the time or the silence for that.

Her father had asked her to help with dinner service. She and Myra had spent too much time at the mall—she might not get home before sunset.

At one point in her life, the dark had been scary. But the most dangerous monsters hid in plain sight, attacked in broad daylight. The shadows and the light they worked against were equal threats.

Trees shaded the straight, smooth path through the woods. Soon, they’d drop their colored leaves for Rama to crunch beneath her tires. The air was warm for October, but it was still autumn. Winter wasn’t far off.

Rama liked winter. She could cover up her body without looking out of place. When the temperature dropped, everyone covered up.

If winter never ended, she might not be so miserable.

At one time, she’d appreciated her body. It was nice, as far as bodies went. She could undress and look in the mirror without cringing.

Then he came into the restaurant and took all that away. Now thoughts of summer made her sick. When school let out next May—

Ramachandra. Stop it.

Rama’s bicycle jerked. Shocked, she hit the brakes and skidded to a stop. The bicycle wobbled. She struggled to keep her balance.

What had she run over?

There were no roots on the path.

The bicycle swerved. Rama’s tire ran over something else. She toppled from the seat, handlebars slipping out of her grasp.

Rama landed hard on her knees. The bicycle smacked against the ground.

She’d run over a rock. She’d have to check her tires.

That’s what you get for not paying attention.

Rama scrambled to a seated position. She braced herself against a tree to see what she’d run over—

There was a body on the path.

Rama shook herself.

No. She’d seen it wrong. She scooted forward on her butt, grinding dirt and leaves beneath her shoes. A twig snapped at her heel. Its broken edges scraped her ankle.

She had to get a closer look.

There was a body on the path.

The girl was Rama’s age. She lay on her side, facing Rama, blue eyes glazed. Unseeing. Dirt coated her long blonde hair and blood poured from her caved-in skull.

Jessica.

Drenched in sweat and shaking, Rama fell on all fours and threw up on the ground, retching until her ribs ached.

Jessica Spurlock.

Her parents lived in town. Rama had ridden her bike past their house.

They’d gone to school together.

She wasn’t coming back.

Emboldened by shock, Rama lifted her gaze—and saw the man beside the body.

She’d missed him at first—his clothes camouflaged him. Blood spattered his green flannel shirt, khaki pants, and brown boots. He held a bloodstained rock. Blood marked his face too.

A flash of recognition.

The man from the restaurant. He lived in town.

Her father’s friend.

The Smiling Man.

Rama heaved again, but there was nothing in her stomach.

She looked once more. It couldn’t be. Her eyes had tricked her.

But what if they hadn’t?

When she scooted closer, he looked up from the body.

He locked eyes with her.

He smiled.

Rama took off running. She couldn’t run before. He’d blocked the door behind him. He was twice her size. The knife—

Pounding heart. Aching thighs. Screaming shins.

She kept running.

If she stopped, he’d catch her. If he caught her, he’d hurt her.

He’d hurt her once before. She couldn’t take her chances.

Her mind shut down. The mustache threatened. The sharp tang of chicken tikka masala—

Rama spun around.

No one there. He hadn’t followed her.

She stopped to catch her breath.

For the moment, she was safe.

What was he doing in the forest? How had he found her again?

Rama hadn’t told anyone about what happened. The less she dwelled on him, the easier it was to pretend it was a nightmare. When she spoke of him, she gave him power.

He was already powerful.

The Smiling Man was her father’s friend. Someone from town. No one to be afraid of. Before the attack, she’d believed he was nice. But what he’d done to her, and how he’d spoken, how he’d touched

No time for that. Stay present, or he’s going to track you down.

Rama gulped air and focused. What was there, besides the man?

Jessica Spurlock. Seventeen. Pretty, thin, and popular.

Murdered with a rock.

Why had Jessica been in the forest? Why had the man been there too? Above all else, why had the man stood next to the body with a rock, like he’d done it?

And that smile.

Rama shuddered so hard she pulled a muscle in her neck. Wincing at the pain, she processed what she’d seen. If the Smiling Man had killed her, what had he done to her first?

She covered her mouth. She wanted to scream. The man would come after her, given she could testify against him. But could she testify, if she had to? Every time she imagined admitting what had happened, she came close to passing out. Add stumbling upon a crime scene and she wouldn’t make a great witness. Besides, she had no evidence.

Rama took another breath.

Behind her, a branch snapped.

She jumped back against a tree. There was someone on the path, but it wasn’t her attacker.

“Jessica?”

Whole and unblemished and alive. No signs of assault.

Rama couldn’t breathe. “How did you—?”

“It’s okay. You fell off your bike. You hit your head. Remember?” Jessica touched her hair. “I tried to help. You ran away.”

She spoke like they were friends, but they seldom talked at school.

“Your head,” Jessica repeated.

Rama pressed a hand against her throbbing temple. How long had it done that? She didn’t remember hitting it, only falling off the bicycle, seeing Jessica’s dead body and the Smiling Man.

Jessica’s brow furrowed as she took a step toward Rama.

Rama stepped away but there was nowhere to go. Her back was still against the tree. The bark scratched her elbows. Dizziness swept over her—but was it from a fall, an injury? She touched her temple. No blood. She probed her face. Nothing.

Could she still have hit her head hard enough to hallucinate?

Jessica fiddled with her pendant. In the fading light, Rama couldn’t tell what it was. Dead Jessica hadn’t been wearing a necklace.

But the body on the path might not have been real.

“I don’t know,” Rama said. The air crackled like a storm was coming, and ozone filled her nostrils. The hair rose on the nape of her neck. Jessica unnerved her. If Rama looked at her for too long, Jessica’s form flickered—for a second, and no longer.

“You’re all right?” Rama asked.

“Of course,” Jessica said. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

Rama’s tongue refused to move.

She’d fallen off her bicycle and hit her head. That induced hallucinations. The Jessica standing in front of her was alive and well and real. She was expressing her concern.

Rama’s fingers jumped to her temple again and searched her hairline. Normal.

Maybe she’d just bumped her brain, like a football player. Didn’t some of them end up in hospitals? Her parents didn’t watch football. Her father preferred soccer, what he called football, like in India. No wonder those players wore helmets.

She should have worn a helmet.

She should have gone with Myra.

“You were dead,” Rama said. “You were lying in the road.”

Jessica’s expression stayed the same. “Come on now. Let’s walk you back and get you on your way.”

She could ask Jessica to check her head, but Jessica wasn’t a doctor, and wasn’t that weird? Other questions nagged her, but she wouldn’t get the answers.

Jessica led her to her bike. Rama struggled to slow her heartbeat. Jessica’s words hadn’t reassured her. They’d made things worse instead. None of it made sense. Her head felt fine. Had she hit it, or did it hurt because Jessica said it should?

Rama stooped beside the bike and ran her hands over the frame. Cold metal. Real.

She checked the ground.

No body.

No Smiling Man.

Praise Brahma.

Jessica raised her eyebrows, tapping her foot.

She looked nothing like dead Jessica.

“You’re all right,” Rama said again.

Without speaking, Jessica squatted down. She peered into Rama’s eyes. Rama looked away.

Jessica sighed. “Whatever you think happened—what you think you saw . . . I’m okay. Everything is fine.”

“Everything is fine.” In saying it, Rama hoped to convince herself it was true. Still, there was something amiss.

What if she’d seen neither Jessica’s body nor the Smiling Man?

But what if she’d seen both?

Maybe her detour through the woods had done more harm than good.

Jessica’s fingers brushed Rama’s cheek and Rama jerked away. What the hell was Jessica thinking? Rama hated physical touch.

Jessica recoiled too, and frowned.

“I have to get home,” Rama said. “It’s getting dark. I promised I’d be back by now.” Why had she added that part? When Jessica didn’t respond right away, Rama’s anxiety made her continue. “I shouldn’t have gone this way. I never go this way coming back from the mall—I cut through town. But I don’t ever see anyone going this way and I thought—”

“Sweetheart, it’s okay,” Jessica said.

Sweetheart? That was different.

Rama swallowed. “I’ll see you in Spanish tomorrow. Take it easy.”

“Yeah, I will.” Jessica stood and brushed herself off. “Same to you, all right?”

Rama righted the bicycle and climbed aboard. The whole way home, her stomach churned. When she got back to the restaurant, she still couldn’t get the woods out of her mind. No matter how many times she went through Jessica’s explanation, it didn’t satisfy her.

Rama’s head didn’t hurt. She couldn’t have fallen and hit it, let alone hallucinated. What could she have run over, if not Jessica’s body? No roots on the path. No obstacles.

She thought of the Smiling Man’s teeth, the dread in her stomach. Jessica’s hands on the end of her necklace.

Whatever the pendant was, it must have been important.

So why had Rama never seen her wearing it before?