I’ve been talking about it for years: the joys of digging through history with white library gloves, the forgotten scandals unearthed, the characters who’ve come alive in my imagination, the story that needed to be told… You’ve been asking, so here’s a preview of my book. Publication updates (hopefully) soon to come.
We’re All Mad Here
With an opportunity for a solo art exhibition, Sylvie Winston knows she has the chance to reclaim her life for the better, but just as she lifts her boar’s hair brush to a new canvas, someone else has decided that she isn’t fit to survive. She becomes a target of a family trying to restore America to greatness and cleanse the world of people like her, people considered possessed, feeble-minded, or insane for centuries—maligned, experimented upon, colonized, and sterilized.
Held at gunpoint, kidnapped from her safe space in an art gallery, driven to unravel the puzzles of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland and the history of eugenics in Virginia, Sylvie has the opportunity to end decades of murders if she can only stay alive. Her angry but still protective ex-fiancé, Miguel, is determined to help, joining her in her travels and her rabbit holes of research, but his actions only show them both that a knight in shining armor is the last thing a girl like Sylvie needs.
***Last updated 7/26/16**
Pressing the notecard’s edge against her finger didn’t cut her skin. She didn’t bruise. Her purple fingernails didn’t break. But Sylvie felt the indention it made—like a hollow in paint after the slice of a palette knife.
On the card’s outside, a white rabbit wearing a waistcoat looked out at her curiously. Its ears were perked, and its whiskers seemed to twitch. The inside bore jagged block letters:
SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST.
THAT’S NOT YOU.
Behind the curtain in her corner of the ER, she lay on the bed as instructed. Her heartbeat thumped inside her chest and beeped beside her on the blinking monitor. Thinking about the notecard wasn’t going to help her medical records. She shifted her hand as if she would put it back into her pocket, but didn’t fully commit to the movement.
The walls were so white here. The only color came from the “Anatomy of the Brain” poster hung on the wall. Thick pink threads attached bare eyeballs to a quartered brain. Labels covered every wrinkle in a tiny alizarin crimson font. The blank, exposed eyes seemed to examine Sylvie absentmindedly.
A poke into the curtain attempted to suffice for a knock on a door. She stuffed the notecard back into her jacket pocket as the doctor pulled the fabric aside with a whoosh of the metallic sliders over their heads.
“Do you have a neurologist you’re already seeing, Sylvie?”
Her attempt to nod made her wince. In her face’s fight with the bar’s bathroom counter, the counter had easily won. She only wished she’d had enough to drink to at least make it a good story.
“A lot of people have a moment right before they fall asleep when they twitch, right?” The doctor didn’t stare at the red swelling she could feel throbbing against her otherwise pale skin. “Sometimes it’s a mental twitch, distracting your thought process. Those are the partial onset seizures, the auras you’ve been having for years.”
Even in her pocket, the notecard’s edges seemed sharp and reckless. She tried to pay attention, looking away from the quartered brain to meet his eyes.
“And sometimes it’s a full body twitch, a generalized tonic-clonic seizure,” he continued. “That’s what you experienced tonight.”
“So my brain’s short circuiting?”
The doctor pressed his lips together into what she supposed was a reassuring expression. “That’s not a bad way to think about it.”
Sylvie took the paperwork he handed her and agreed to meet her neurologist the next morning at the appointment they’d taken the liberty to schedule for her. She lied when she assured the doctor she would call a friend so she didn’t spend the night alone. Her muscles tightened in her neck and shoulders. She’d had enough of clinics lately.
As she walked down the hallway to check out, she kept her hand in her pocket, running her fingertips over the words inside like they were written in braille. Nurses gossiped and laughed, even as they rushed past her with clipboards, IV bags, and little cups of medications in hand.
Outside the emergency room windows, thunder boomed, a signal from the ancients or perhaps just a superb sound-off of static electricity. She signed out and pulled out her phone, debating whether she should trek in the downpour the three blocks from the hospital to her apartment or wait it out. The walking out of this place and through her old Richmond neighborhood would feel good, she knew. The rain would wash away the day so she could start over. Maybe it could wash away the whole month of September. Maybe it would ruin the ink on the notecard and she could pretend it had never been delivered to her door.
She closed her eyes and pressed her purple nails into the palms of her hands.
“Sylv…” the voice repeated, familiar as morning breath and the dagger she’d put in his back.
She opened her eyes.
Water clung to his short hair like he was freshly showered. It hung on his dark eye-lashes and beaded on his tan skin. Sylvie’s body heat rose, and she crossed her arms over her chest. He must have just walked in. She dropped her chin so that her hair partially fell over the bruise on her face.
“Always saving the damsel in distress.”
“Sylv, you’re in as much distress as this monsoon.”
The rain splattered the windows with a gust of wind. She would have to wait for a while for this to blow over, but she’d happily trudge through the downpour rather than accept the offer of a ride she knew was coming.
“Why are you here?” Her hand absentmindedly went to her stomach. Miguel didn’t notice. He never had.
“The bar called me. I guess they didn’t know that we…”
“That we were finished with each other?”
She hugged her arms tighter and pressed her fingernails harder into her palms as she walked toward the storm.
“You’re crazy, Sylv.”
“I could be worse things.”
The wind slammed the heavy door behind her. The rain smelled of browning autumn, sweet and dying. She tramped forward on the slick sidewalk. Her soaked hair began to stick to her bruised face.
Miguel followed but didn’t speak. She used the storm as an excuse to walk faster. Her hands had started to shake.
“Come on, my car’s in the garage.”
“No.” Mouthing the word made her face hurt again. She pulled her jacket over her head and went faster, sloshing through puddles, trying not to trip on the old tree roots that upturned the century-old brick.
“I’m calling you later. Answer it.” His voice was lost to the splash of water and a rumble that shook her insides.
Drawn plantation blinds, darkened antique stained-glass, and lace trimmed windows stared down at her. The rain pelted her jacket over her head. She crossed another road just in time to hear a horn blare and a car swerve on the next block.
An animal shrieked as tires squealed. A small lump in the road remained. Against the ER doctor’s orders, she broke into a run.
The cat remained motionless in the puddle forming on the road. Rain pelted its fur. When she reached it and crouched down, it looked up at her—dazed, shoulder raw, ear torn, whiskers frayed on one side. No collar. It was a skinny little thing. Sylvie’s breath caught in her throat. The creature looked so defenseless. Thunder rumbled down the empty tree-lined street, and the rain spit at them furiously like they deserved it. Maybe they both did.
When she stroked its side, Sylvie’s dark fingernails seemed to add more disorder to the cat’s mottled wet fur. Blood ran into the puddles underneath it, but the wounds seemed superficial. She expected it to hiss, to scratch or bite, but it didn’t. The injured creature only meowed softly, as if accepting its fate.
“No,” she whispered again, careful with the movement of her lips not to stress her jaw. She scooped it up, cradling the animal like a baby as she walked it out of the rain and into her apartment that was only three doors away. Her neighbor’s black and gold Virginia Commonwealth University flag whipped in the wind like a welcome home.
Swinging open her rusty screen door, she held it open with her hip while juggling the cat and fumbling in her bag for her keys. Inside, Sylvie wished she could offer the cat something better than a place with walls full of old nail holes and her artwork hung haphazardly across every smudged off-white surface. She had kept at least one piece from each of her six exhibitions. Deep purples and reds, hazy blues and greens, they hung on every wall and leaned against her sparse furnishings. Old studies of burning houses trailed down the hall. Her latest sat drying on the easel, her first self-portrait—dark, fiery, and severe—the person she no longer wanted to be.
They both dripped, but she grabbed towels for the animal first, giving it a warm, dry place to lie down so she could pour clean water over its wounds. With the slow rinse from an old mason jar, tiny bits of rock escaped the shoulder gash, leaving raw depressions behind. She winced at every one. When the abrasions were clean, she debated calling a vet, but she hated doctors. She assumed the cat did too.
Sylvie emptied a box of paints and nestled a clean towel inside of it. As gently as she could, she laid the cat inside. She moved the box to a front window, so the cat could see the storm.
Tubes of pigment littered her floor. They covered the white rabbit notecard that had fallen there as if painting over a mistake. It had to be a mistake. Or a bad prank. Or… She shivered and wrapped another towel around her shoulders.
Sylvie leaned down to pick through the colors then walked over to move her self-portrait to the floor, leaning it against the nearby wall. She took up a wide blank canvas, positioning it as best she could on the too-small easel. Her own brain couldn’t send death threats. This, she was fairly sure of.
A familiar tingling began at her temples. She remembered she hadn’t eaten dinner. She’d only had half of her first beer hours ago. Sylvie closed her eyes, accepting the sensation like a guilty pleasure. She was at home, all alone. The only damage she could do was to herself.