After a long journey, I’m THRILLED to announce I am represented by Becca Crandall at the Carolyn Jenks Agency. I’m so excited to work with Becca to bring my modern Greek myth to life and cannot wait to share it with the world.
I’ve posted an entire post on my querying journey if your interested in learning about it HERE
“Good morning, ladies,” Eva said, smiling as the dozens of hens scrambled down the ramp, freeing themselves from the coop. A rainbow of colors, some spotted, some striped, they marched down the ramp and into the pasture, off to spend their day scratching and foraging for bugs. Two honey-colored cows grazed nearby. Their sides swollen with the calves they’d soon be having.
Even though she’d lived here nearly a year, since moving from St. Louis, the sunrises on her little farm still took her breath away. The creamy pinks, and oranges, smudged on the horizon over green fields. Fences zigzagged for miles, sectioning off the neighboring properties.
While she enjoyed the fresh air and pretty views, she still hadn’t grown used to the quiet.
Sure, there were the sparrows, repeating their trilling song, and the occasional crow of the rooster, Peter, but the other farms could have been abandoned for the people she’d seen.
An odd truck or car would drive by once a day on the main road, but aside from that, Eva could have been the only person in the world.
Frederick bellowed from his pen and Eva rolled her eyes, walking over to open the gate for the disgruntled goat. He, along with the rest of the farm animals, she’d inherited when her cousin, a realtor from the nearby small town, had contacted her with a ‘deal she couldn’t pass up.’ Eva had briefly mentioned her desire to leave the city, since her job had transitioned to remote, and the timing couldn’t have been better. Thrust into caretaking for a farm with no prior experience, it had been a steep learning curve for her to manage, but she’d learned the routine and grown to love it.
From the back of Fredrick’s pen on the opposite side of the fence, a flash of movement caught the edge of her vision.
A man stood smiling from under the shadowed brim of a baseball cap.
The breath whooshed from Eva’s lungs and she pressed a hand to her chest.
“Holy shit,” she said. “You scared me.”
The morning sun highlighted the curls of mousy brown hair around his ears, and more than a few days of stubble on his chin. The blue stripes of his plaid shirt were faded, matching the shade of his jeans. He leaned an arm on the top rail of the fence, his dark eyes studying her.
A shiver raced through her and she suddenly wished she’d changed from her leggings and coffee-stained sweatshirt to do chores.
“Good morning,” he said, and his voice caused a tremor in her chest. Honey-smooth, thick, with a slight uptick of a midwestern accent.
“Morning,” she said, her voice cracking. How long had it been since she’d been to town and actually spoken to someone? Weeks? Since the bridge had washed out, adding thirty-minutes to her trip for groceries, she’d made sure to stock up last time she’d gone.
“You must be the one that bought the place,” he said.
Eva blinked, as if she’d forgotten how to have a conversation. “Yup,” she squeaked, her mind scrambling to say something funny or clever.
The man moved down the fence toward her. Closer, she realized he was nearer her age than she’d first assumed.
“I’m Eva,” she finally managed to spit out. “Do you own the farm over there?” she said, pointing to the white house with green shutters nestled among a grove of trees. The man nodded, his eyes never leaving her. Goosebumps pricked her arms.
A hundred questions tumbled in her mind: What was his name, why was he just now coming out to meet her? but the way he appraised her so intensely, stilled her tongue.
“Anyway,” she said, “I should probably get back inside. I’ve got a zoom meeting I need to get ready for.”
Eva unhooked the latch of the gate, and Frederick bolted from the pen. She took a step back, preparing to leave, when out of nowhere the man began to laugh. She nearly jumped from the sudden sound.
“What’s so funny?” she asked, narrowing her eyes.
The man shook his head, and wiped a tear from the corner of his eye, before returning his gaze to her. “No, you don’t.”
Eva tilted her head. “What are you talking about?”
“You don’t have a meeting,” he said, smirking.
Eva squinted, anger rushing up inside her. “How the hell do you know? Of course, I do. It’s at eight, since the two-hour time difference.”
It was the man’s turn to tilt his head and something shifted in the way he looked at her, transforming from curiosity to…pity.
“Eva,” he said, and hearing her name on his lips, caused a heat to spread across her face. “Let me show you something.” He reached an arm over the fence, and waved for her to come closer.
She hesitated at first, but the way his eyes had softened, caused her to finally give in.
His hand was warm with light calluses along the palm and she liked the way hers fit in his. Whatever fear she’d had initially toward him evaporated.
Gently, he tugged her to closer, but Eva pulled back.
“What are you doing?” she asked, digging her heels into the dirt. She couldn’t go to him, not when a literal fence separated them.
He ignored her, keeping his grip firm. She braced herself for the laws of physics to apply and the wooden railing to dig into her chest, but to her surprise it never came. She dropped her gaze and watched as her body passed through the railing as if it were thin air.
She gasped. She had felt nothing. If it weren’t for his steady hand still holding hers, she feared she would have collapsed from shock.
Her eyes widened and she looked up.
A crooked grin had appeared on his face. “I told you,” he said. “You’ll never have another meeting again.”
While in the throes of the query trenches, I found so much inspiration in reading posts just like this and STILL cannot believe the day has come that I officially get to write one for myself!!!
My writing journey started back in college with fan-fic and short stories, but in the effort of brevity I’ll fast forward to 2017 when I really got serious about not only completing a full length novel but actually publishing it.
In the fall of 2016, my partner and I started a new business and I found myself quitting my day job to not only stay home with our two small children but helping with the bookkeeping and office managing of the business. In January of 2017, I made a new years resolution to start and finish a book. I finished it that April (we’ll call it Manuscript A). *Cue fanfare* In my baby writer innocence I googled how to get published and immediately ran into the brick wall that was “You need a literary agent.” (It couldn’t be THAT hard and besides, if they really loved it, they’d look past all the grammatical errors, gaping plot holes, and the fact that the word count was not appropriate for the age group, right?)
So, again, being completely ignorant of the industry, I gave the draft a quick once over edit and sent out terrible excuses for queries.
Surprise! There were floods of rejections.
While querying, I read blogs on how to get agents, how to perfect a query etc and quickly realized that I needed to start from scratch. Manuscript A was not going to be the one and so I gave up and started a fresh idea. In the Summer of 2017, I shelved manuscript A, and wrote a completely new story. This time for a different age group and genre. THIS time, I spent months revising and while drafting, I read craft books and read blogs on how to better my writing.
In the Fall of 2017, I started querying Manuscript B, and to my joy, received a few requests! One of which replied after reading that my YA story actually had a middle grade aged voice and I’d do it service to revise it completely for that age group. SO, I pulled all outstanding queries and spent the winter of 2018 doing so. At which point, in January 2019, I saw a Twitter post about a writing/querying group that was looking for members. To be honest, I hesitated because surely THIS manuscript was the one and I’d join this group but within a month, I’d have an offer.
(*Surprise, surprise* that was not the case)
While in this group—the Llamasquad, as it came to be lovingly called—I discovered so many mistakes in my query as well as my story. I outgrew my self-conscientiousness and exchanged pages with others and everyday learned how to really hone my writing abilities. I entered a few pitch contests with newly revised manuscript B. I had many requests, and truly there were so close calls, but alas as I crept over a hundred queries, I felt it was time to move on.
It was very difficult decision but the urge to create something new had taken hold and so while waiting on the last of manuscript B queries to reply, I wrote manuscript C, something I highly recomend you do when facing the stressful days of querying.
WRITE THE WAIT 😉 Trust me, it’ll keep you sane, improve your craft, and should you happen to get an offer, your new agent will be ecstatic you have another project complete!
This new idea, manuscript C, (titled: Frayed) was so vivid in my mind. The characters more real than any of the other stories I’d worked on. It burned through me, and within two months I’d written a first draft. I spent the entire month of March revising it, taking notes from my critique partners and thoroughly polishing it.
I was more careful this time, making sure each and every agent I picked was seeking that genre and age group. I googled interviews they’d done, I subscribed to Publisher’s Marketplace searching what books they repped and if they were similar to mine. That spring I (obsessesed) over perfecting my pitches and entered several pitch contests.
The response was AMAZING. Suddenly, I had dozens of agents interest and garnered many requests. More than any of the other manuscripts.
It was really happening. For once I really felt hope that this story was something special.
Then, the rejections started rolling in. Many were kind and gave no feedback merely saying “Just not a good fit.” In July of 2019, I received not just a polite form rejection, but a long email that summed up was something like, “Here are all things wrong with your story, and while I like the premise, I can’t sell it as is. However, if you fix all of these things, I’ll take another look.”
I re-read the email several times and even shared it with a few close friends to double check, but it was indeed an R&R. A revise and resubmit. Not an offer, but the next best thing.
However, the edits this agent requested were extensive and would require a FULL rewrite. Querying tends to make most writers feel anxious because there is so much they can’t control, so being exactly that, I began a re-write that summer. What could it hurt? Besides, I could keep the OG version in case any of the other agents reading it fell in love as it was. I took almost two months to finish it, had some CP’s look it over, then I took a deep breath and sent it back.
A month passed before I heard a response, and *whomp whomp* while the agent said they were impressed with my revisions, it still wasn’t what they were looking for in regards to their list.
By the Fall of 2019, I’d begun to lose a lot of hope that Manuscript C as not being the ‘one’. The exciting rush I’d had earlier was fading and I felt the first sense of nagging doubt that THIS story too needed to be shelved. That winter, I struggled to start anything new, and the month of November was a tough one. Over the past months, the rejections to my complete manuscript were like gut punches and only contributed to the dark thoughts that grew that perhaps THIS path would never happen for me. More and more I grew to believe that my writing would never be good enough and that getting an agent would never be a reality I would get to experience.
Facing a bleak outlook on the last of my queries closing out, December was shaping up to be a dark one. With encouragement from my writing group, I decided to take one last chance at this story finding its match, and entered in December’s Pitmad contest. One last hurrah before shelving it for good.
To my delight, I did receive a few agent likes, not as much as before, probably because the publishing world is small and the same agents were seeing the same pitch over and over and thought “WOW, is she still querying that thing?”
However, one of the likes, did garner a full request!! While I waited to hear back, I did some find courage and started writing again and mentally I found myself forgetting that I still had one chance of hope.
On March 20th, I received an email from the agent who’d requested the full from Pitmad. The very last FULL request I had out, which to be frank I was excited to hear from them because then it would officially mean I was done querying that story and could move on for real.
But it WASN’T a rejection, instead they said that they were halfway through my story but could they see the other version as well to read along beside it. (I mentioned the revised version in my query because I’d spent so much time on it, why not offer both as options?)
Delighted, I sent it over, still not letting myself get too excited of course. I’d been close in the past, and I’d learned not to read too much into emails.
On April 2nd, the agent replied again and said she’d finished reading but needed some time to discuss with their managing agent about it.
Again, I felt a small flicker of hope, but quickly squashed it down. Nothing in this industry is certain.
One week later, April 8th, the agent replied and said they’d love to set up a time to chat. Still, I’d heard of agents asking for revise and resubmits on the phone and I prepared myself for this possibly being one of those calls.
We scheduled the call for 4/15 (a whole 7 days away which at the time was a blur of stress, excitement, and not enough sleep). The day of the call finally came, and I gripped the phone in my hand, my heart somersaulting when I saw the east coast number pop up.
Our call was great, and the agent said EVERYTHING I wanted to hear. They answered all of my questions and then some and the best part was how much they LOVED and really understood my story.
After we hung up, I received an email with the subject line:
OFFER OF REPRESENTATION!!!!
We decided to take two weeks for me to notify the few remaining agents with my queries and then I’d choose. On April 30th, I replied to the agent with an acceptance of their OFFER!!!! In the end, I had several kind passes and one other offer of rep. It was an incredibly hard decision to decline the other agent, but I am THRILLED to announce that I am now represented by Becca Crandall at the Carolyn Jenks Agency.
Becca has been a dream to work with and I cannot wait to grow my writing career with her by side!
Rejections: 94 and 30 no response
Manuscript C (Frayed):
Queries: 97 (28 were pitch contest requests)
Rejections: 20 on the partial/full, 78 on queries, 19 no response
HEREis a quick post with more info on the story that hooked my agent!
To all you still in the query trenches or just starting, there are so many fantastic resources available online. One of the greatest discoveries I made when I begun this journey was the true kindness other writers and authors show. I plan to post in the future with links to some of my favorite resources so stay tuned!
Before I can go into today’s post, I need to share a little background on my life. I live in the Pacific Northwest on a small farm with horses, chickens, dogs, a half acre garden and an abundance of wild birds and squirrels that live alongside us. Every one of these creatures depends on one very old trough for a fresh supply of water. Therefore, everyday I venture out as the sun begins to rise and spend ten minutes or so filling said trough. Now, I’m sure many of you are wondering why I don’t just use an automatic filler? well, I have in the past done so! Unfortunately, it lead to issues of it becoming stuck on or stuck off and us arriving home from a weekend trip to a pasture that had either become a pond (as well as a very tired well pump) or horses pawing at the bottom of a nearly empty water trough. Therefore—in an effort to ease my already anxious mind— I manually go out and fill it every day.
In so doing this chore every morning, I’m left alone with my thoughts for a good while. I view the sunrise. Talk to the hens and horses grazing peacefully on the grass wet with dew, and ponder life.
This morning I was mulling over a discussion I had with a dear writer friend. We had spent some time talking this past week about telling stories that the market seems to feel is ‘saturated’ or ‘overdone’. We even chatted nostalgically about trunked manuscripts or unfinished stories that we’d been told over and over that publishers won’t spend a second looking at.
Well, here’s the epiphany I had.
THAT’S A LOAD OF GARBAGE.
And here’s why. In my thirty-some years on this Earth, I have preferred fantasy and sci-fi books. As a child, that’s all I read. Am I going to one day wake up and say, “You know what, there’s too much fantasy right now. I’m bored of it and will never read it again.”
Umm, no. I will always love what I love. Period. AND will continue to buy it until the day I depart. (although there will probably be a few pre-orders sitting on my front porch while they’re having my funeral)
But I digress. The point is, people are like this. Readers are like this. We love what we love. And no amount of how many books with the same theme are out there will change it.
Let me give you an example. There’s a twelve year old I know that adores cats. However, she is cursed with severe allergies and will never be able to own one. She is able to pet one with a prophylactic Benadryl and an immediate hand wash. So, she does whats the next best thing to being around cats, she reads about them. ANY book with a cat on the cover, she snaps up. For her birthday or Christmas that’s her number one wish list, and she is showered in heaps of cat books. Cats who talk, cats who are secondary characters, cats in space, you get my point.
So, what if I told her publishers say there are TOO MANY cat books.
Is she going to buy any less? Is she going to change her preferences?
She’s going to continue devouring any feline book she can get her turquoise fingernail painted hands on.
Imagine that right now, there is a 15 year old girl who’s ultra-trendy and super cool cousin from Los Angeles is visiting her. AND she brought her all her YA fairy books she’d binged last summer. That 15 year old girl is now hooked. A forever fan of any YA fae book.
And what if somewhere else, there is a 13 year old boy who’s parents are going through a nasty divorce? His school librarian recommended a dystopian thriller series and he has become obsessed. He stays up late reading them because they give him hope and courage that even under the most bleak of circumstances, a person can prevail. There will be a tomorrow.
And just yesterday, what if a 22 year old boy is struggling with his identity? But is learning to find peace in a vampire series where the main character’s life mirrors his own.
These are just a few examples of stories that are too often said to be overdone. And yet, there are still readers seeking them out. Waiting for hours in lines to meet their authors. Stalking their Twitter or Instagram for sneak peaks or announcements. Finding solace in creating fan art for their characters that fill their hearts with so much joy.
So, I say to you fellow writers reading this: Ignore the trends. Ignore the publishers. Tune it all out and just write. YOUR story is needed.
Ever since beginning my writing journey, I believed two things about Impostor syndrome. Both of which I now know to be untrue.
First, Impostor syndrome only effects published authors.
and Second, since I’ve been writing for so long and never experienced it, that I was somehow immune to it.
Both are completely FALSE.
For those who are unfamiliar with what Impostor syndrome is, I’ll do my best to summarize. Impostor syndrome can effect anyone in literally any endeavor. Whether its creative arts, music, or your 9-5 office job. It effects everyone in different ways, but essentially it is the feeling that whatever you’re doing, will never be good enough.
In published authors with their smash hit debut, it can feel like they just got “lucky” and will never again strike gold. With querying authors or those on submission to publishing houses, it can feel like their writing will never amount to anything. The hours of time they’ve spent outlining, drafting, editing, will be for naught. Time and energy wasted.
In my naivety, I felt somehow that my skin was “thick enough” or I had enough objectivity that I would never experience such a feeling. But, alas, Impostor syndrome is a sneaky B*tch.
I’m currently in the query trenches with what I feel is THE best novel I’ve ever written. (yes, yes authors always feel this way) but for me it is true! And being aware of how slow the query trenches are, I’ve begun outlining and even drafting scenes for my new Middle grade sci-fi. However, each time I sit down to write, I’m overcome with the sinking sensation that I’m wasting my time. I’m flooded with questions and negative thoughts like…
Will this story ever be as good as my previous one? Should this really be a middle grade, or perhaps I should switch to YA? What if this story would be better told as a graphic novel and all I am doing right now is spinning my wheels when I should be focusing changing the entire format?
So, as a writer, I did what I typically do when frustrated, I poured myself a bowl of cereal and browsed Instagram. BAD IDEA. Story after story showed my favorite authors on book tours, greeting fans, signing special editions at packed bookstores, or jetting off to overseas countries that had invited them.
None of which made me feel better.
Feeling now even more in a slump, I had the sudden realization that perhaps, THIS was what Impostor syndrome was all along and I just hadn’t realized it. So, I started googling it discovered dozens of articles, some even from big name authors, and how (surprise, surprise) THEY too experience it as well!
So no matter how YOU experience it, I can guarantee it’ll rear it’s ugly, joy-sapping-head up at least once in your life.
Through all the articles and blogs I read, the one piece of advice that was consistent was this…
NEVER, EVER take yourself too seriously.
Write for yourself, and no one else.
Write something that YOU want to read. Write something silly, write something that makes you tear up because it’s full of such flowery prose, write something that you’ve held in your heart for so long, but have been too afraid to share it. And If at any time, you find yourself dreading sitting at the keyboard, worrying that you’ll never do your story justice, you should ask yourself a single question: “Why?”
That bar you have set SO high that you’re trying to reach?
Guess what…It doesn’t exist.
I hope this article was helpful, and I’d love be sure and comment below with any other tips or experiences you’ve had!
I went into this YA horror/fantasy novel with fairly high expectations after so many reader friends recommended it. It starts out amazing, set in a small town in upstate New York and has a very Riverdale vibe including mysterious founding families and their secrets. But unfortunately nothing related to the mystery ever felt ever fully formed. The “beast” and a turquoise hair person is teased (adnauseam) and while a lot of the story was atmospheric and interlaced with creepy descriptions, a lot of it was…blah drama between families, and introspective circles as the characters struggled to accomplish anything.
This, unfortunately, is one of those YA books that could have been solved so easily from the beginning but is conveniently… ignored <<rolls eyes>>. If somebody would’ve shown Violet her ritual (literally ANY of her friends could’ve done this) she would have had her powers from day 1 and that would’ve been the end of that.
I have to add while the first 1/2 to 3/4 of the book was overall good/interesting, it wasn’t until the last few chapters that I almost didn’t finish. The whole amnesia bit with Violet is OVERDONE in fantasy and YA and frankly, is exhausting. Was that somehow supposed to be the climax?! I give this book a 3 star rating mostly due to the fact that I love Stranger Things and the author’s descriptions and YA tone were very well done. The story itself felt dragging at times, and the premise is nothing special. If you’re into a darker, horror YA, I recommend you check it out.
As this is one of my first book reviews, I wanted to start it out with a bang! Sadie is, hands down, one of THE best books I’ve read in years.
For those of you who haven’t read it, I’ll give you a brief (spoiler free) summary. Sadie takes place in a rural town in Colorado. It’s told from dual narratives, beginning with a radio podcast reporter named West McCray who does pieces on small towns in rural America and overhears about Sadie’s disappearance following the death of her thirteen-year-old sister. The other point of view is told from nineteen year old Sadie, who’s mother was a drug addict and was forced to raise her younger sister in the single wide trailer they shared. As if her life couldn’t be any worse, she also suffers from a severe speech impediment However, she’s bold, and headstrong, and is determined to find her sister’s killer and so embarks on her journey.
Several things fascinated me about this book including how Sadie is seemingly one step ahead of the reporter as the story progresses. The author does a phenomenal job showing the impossible odds Sadie faces as she’s impaired by her difficulty communicating (she has a terrible stutter). In a classic—tear your heart in half scene— Sadie struggles to ask a waitress at a diner to identify a man in a picture. At first, she’s ignored, than treated like she’s mentally handicap. Finally they lie to her, berate her, insult her, and tell her to leave as they’re worried she’s “up to no good.”
The exact scene is later mirrored as McCray arrives at the diner. He proceeds to interrogate the same cook and waitress. Being an adult, white, cis male, from the “big city”, surprise surprise, he’s treated completely different. They’re courteous, honest, and more than obliging to answer his questions.
It’s as raw and real as it is disheartening.
The remainder of the book follows a similar pattern until you’re nearly in tears as Sadie, desperate to communicate, struggles every step of the way.
I gave Sadie a five stars on Goodreads, and highly recommend anyone looking for a dark thriller revolving around the stereotypes people face everyday and the impact it has on their lives. It’s an intriguing, well thought out tale told in such a unique way, that it allows it to portray the very real power imbalances in today’s society.
Tell us your name and any fun facts about yourself or your writing!
My name is Sarah Pounds and I write MG/YA Fantasy/sci-fi. I’ve written off an on for years, and have always been an avid reader (my first job was at our local library) I live on a mini-farm in Eastern WA state with my husband and two children. When I’m not writing, I manage the bookkeeping side of our electrical business.
How many projects did you query in the past?
In 2017, I queried my first book, an Adult sci-fi. I didn’t get a single request. In 2018, I wrote and queried two more adult fantasies, which garnered some interest.
What were some of your rookie mistakes when you first started to query?
Looking back, there were so many silly mistakes I made, mostly because I was naive. My first two books had prologues (strike 1), they also were too short for age and genre, the first one capped at 65k, and second was 72k (strike 2), and strike 3, I didn’t use ANY beta readers which I think truly hurt my chances (strike 3).
At what point did you decide it was time to stop querying your project(s)?
My first two, I received nothing but form R’s or silence, so I knew something wasn’t working. I also started beta-reading other querying author’s MS as well as participating in workshops and realized my books weren’t near ready to query.
What do you wish you had known and could tell your past self about your very first query?
I would tell past Sarah to find writer friends, and get their valuable feedback on your materials. I’d also tell myself to get as many eyes on my book as I can as well as read, read, READ. Sign up for writing workshops as well as use Querytracker to keep track of which agents you’ve queried, and when.
What advice would you give new queriers?
FIND your tribe!!! Connect with other writers, no matter their writing journey, there is much to learn. It is a very lonely journey while querying, and so much of it is viewed from the outside. It seems like EVERYONE is getting an agent but you. But I can promise you that is NOT true! A tremendous amount of work and effort goes unseen. Trust me, no one is above rejections.
I also recommend participating in online contests and critiques (there are so many on Twitter these days). It’s nerve-wracking putting your work out there, but hey, isn’t that the whole idea of querying? Might as well rip off the bandage and go for it. 😉
How do you pass time during all the waiting of querying?
WORK ON A NEW PROJECT (not a sequel!) It might feel like the LAST thing you want to do, but trust me, it’s vital to keep busy for your mental health. Diving into a fresh, shiny project will not only keep you occupied (and off querytracker) but also give you a confidence boost that YOU are indeed a moving forward in your author journey even when those rejections roll in.
Lastly, tell us about the new project you’re querying–if you’re querying. What is it about this project excites you?
I am currently querying a Middle-grade portal fantasy set in 1970. I have read (and follow) the advice of craft books including Save the Cat, Stephen King’s book On Writing, and Story Genius. I have CP’s and read widely as well as books in my genre/age range.
This book has gone through many revisions, including changing it to MG from YA. Thankfully, the feedback I have received (from CP’s and agents alike) has all been positive! I really feel it’s unique and I love how the societal issues are mimicked of those still present today, of which I feel is important for kids to be aware of.
Querying is a scary business. Don’t go at it alone! Use the #amquerying hashtag on Twitter, or DM me @Sarahjp22 on Twitter if you’d like to join our Query Support Slack Group!
Feel free to comment with any book/query questions you have. Writing is such a difficult, isolating world, find your tribe and love them hard!
If you’re interested in reading other QUERY PROS posts I’ve posted the links below.
These questions were graciously put together by the amazing Catherine Bakewell and the link to her awesome blog is www.catherinebakewell.com
From where they sat under the shade of the trellis, Kat and Ella had a direct view of the arena. Groomsmen led horses back and forth along a corridor between the barns. Along the edges of the barn and corners of the arena, barrels overflowed with flowers and bushes. Horses’ coats gleamed and their polished hooves were neatly shod. Throughout her teenage years, Ella had spent the summers at the local racetrack with her family. However, the horse’s at Kat’s stable were nothing like those racing at the track. Compared to the leggy, muscular thoroughbreds, these creatures were refined and compact. Adapted to harsh conditions in the desert, they exhibited large nostrils and alert ears. The tip-off though was the way carried their flowing tails up high, like waving flags behind them.
“These are Arabians. Am I right?” Ella said.
Kat’s cheeks crinkled around her eyes. “I knew you were beautiful, but I couldn’t tell from your mom’s pictures you were also smart.”
Ella scratched the back of her neck, pretending to ignore the compliment.
“Yes, they are indeed Arabians. ‘Created by the gods from the desert sand and wind’ or at least that’s how the legend goes.”
“How do I keep them all? I can’t take all the credit, that’s where my dearest Zalika comes in. While I do admire the gorgeous animals, Zalika is the true horsewoman. Her father bred and raised Arabians for Saddam himself. After his fall, many of the horses were stolen or slaughtered. She’s procured them at various horse markets including Baghdad. I won’t lie, some cost a pretty penny, but we can sell them easily for double in Europe or the United States.”
The thought of such frivolous use of money among such squalor made Ella cringe. “I don’t understand,” she said through gritted teeth. “The price of one of these horses could pay for a month’s supply of food at a refugee camp.”
Kat raised an eyebrow, looking taken aback by the harsh tone of Ella’s words. “Of course, you’re right dear, but—”
“How can you sit here among all this?” Ella said, getting to her feet. “When there are families being torn apart and every day more children are orphaned?”
Kat pursed her lips as if waiting for Ella to finish.
Ella’s chest heaved as she clenched her fists. “Here you are, drinking your fancy wine, and not ten miles west, people are literally starving to death!”
Kat tilted her head but didn’t reply. As if an idea struck her, she knitted forehead, narrowing her eyes. “I want to show you something. Follow me?” Without waiting for Ella, the old woman had pushed herself up from her chair and had begun tottering out into the glaring sun toward the arena. Three horses were being worked, two ridden and one long-lined. They trotted in the shade along a grove of trees, their polished hides slick with sweat.
Kat paused at the fence, resting an elbow over the top rail as Ella joined her.
“You see that young man over there,” Kat said, pointing to a man on the ground lunging a spirited gray mare. “That’s Qadir. He’s been with us two years this fall. He was fifteen when his entire family was killed in an air strike.” Kat’s eyes grew distant as she gazed toward the boy.
“They’d been preparing a family dinner when Qadir’s mother had asked him to fetch a birthday present for his father from the store down the street. On his walk home, a missile struck the side of his family’s house. Qadir had to watch his home burn, with his father’s wrapped gift clutched in his arms.”
Ella’s chest tightened. Her cheeks felt hot, feverish.
Kat turned and rested her back against the fence. She motioned to a middle-aged woman and older man attending to a pair of water buckets. “Sayyid and Jasmin came only a few months ago. Jasmin lost both her husband and son to suicide bombers. Sayyid is her father. His brother joined a terrorist cell and was responsible for the suicide attack at the cafe last February.”
Ella bit her lip. “Alright, but what exactly are you trying to say?”
Kat flicked an annoyed look at her. “Now don’t make me take back my compliment about you being smart.” She motioned around her again. “Everyone you see here has been affected by an act of violence in one way or another. However, we welcome them here. We provide a decent wage as well as room and board. And if needed, transport out of the country.”
Ella’s eyes widened as the words struck her. They were smuggling people out of Iraq. And to think she’d raised a critical eyebrow at their contraband wine last night.
“You can’t be serious.” Ella narrowed her eyes at the gray-haired woman.
“Serious as a heart attack,” Kat smirked and knocked on the wood rail behind her.
“The same as the wine,” Kat said. “When we export horses out of the country, we have to send a few grooms to go along as well. Tend to the horses en-route, make sure they’re cared for and fed. And once they’re delivered to their new owners, whether it be France or England.” Kat paused and gave a small shrug. “There have been occasions, the shipping containers return empty.”
Ella couldn’t believe it. It was almost too clever to work, and yet, it did.
“And you’ve never been—” Ella trailed off.
“Been caught?” Kat supplied. “No, dear and we hope to keep it that way,” She shot Ella a stern don’t-tell-a-soul-or-I’ll-kill-you-myself look.
Ella shrank under the woman’s glare and gave a quick nod. She felt a sense of honor that Kat had disclosed such a secret to her. She’d never betray it. However, Ella knew someday they’d get caught. The authorities would get tipped off eventually and shut them down. But until that day, Ella hoped many more lives could be saved.