As most of you (hopefully) know, for the past few months I've been releasing a previously unpublished novel, The Final Rose, over at Wattpad, a reading app that gives subscribers access to millions of free books. As a serialized novel, each Friday I've posted a new 2-3K word chapter, which readers can vote and comment on. Next week I'll be publishing the completed novel on Amazon for those of you who prefer to hold books in your hands, or want to binge read the novel in one sitting rather than week-by-week, or simply want to support me with dollar bills. The content of the novel will be the same as the one on Wattpad, with slightly different chapter breakdowns and better (although never perfect) editing.
The full novel will still be available for free on Wattpad for six months after it's complete. After that I'll be taking down a portion of the online book to continue to encourage its purchase on Amazon because, well, a girl's gotta eat. Because so much content will be available elsewhere, the novel will not be eligible for Amazon's Kindle Unlimited program, so if you're a KU subscriber, I hope you're fan enough to purchase the completed novel.
I've been generally encouraged by what I'm calling the Wattpad Experiment. At the time of this posting, I have over 60,000 followers on Wattpad, and an excerpt of The Final Rose was featured on Cosmopolitan.com. Not too shabby for a self-published author, amiright? My hope is that Wattpad, which is generally designed for a younger and more global audience, has exposed new readers to my writing, and that beyond The Final Rose they'll support future works and discover my more established stories and characters. I haven't decided yet if I'll be posting future stories on the app, but as always, stay tuned for more.
I stared out the rain-streaked window at the red adobe hills of New Mexico. It was just after dusk and the starless sky was a deep shade of purple. I’d never been to this part of the country before, and I was still getting my bearings. It had taken a long time to get to Santa Fe. I didn’t live close to any major airports, so just getting here had been an ordeal. After multiple flights and too many layovers, I’d had only enough time to check in to the hotel where we weren’t really staying, wiggle into a cocktail dress, and jump into the back of a limo with a gaggle of women whom I’d never met before.
I looked around at the smiling, eager faces of the six other women sitting in the back of the black limo. They all chattered excitedly while bits and pieces of their stilted conversations filled my head.
“I wonder if he’s as handsome in person as he is on TV,” a blonde girl in a bubble-gum pink dress thought aloud. She reminded me a little of Malibu Barbie.
Her sentiment was echoed by several others while I continued to stare out the limo window. The weather had cleared and beyond the water lines streaked across the windows, there was no sign that it had ever rained that day-a symptom of life in the high desert, I supposed.
“God, I’m so nervous,” the brunette sitting beside me muttered. She wore an off-the-shoulder green dress that matched the color of her emerald eyes.
She turned in her seat and looked at me as though I’d grown a third eyeball. “Everything!” she exclaimed. “Everything we say and do is going to be on television. They could edit us to look like lunatics.”
“Then why do it?” I asked.
“B-because … because.” She stammered and looked flustered by the question. “Why are you doing it?”
“My mom signed me up.”
“When the show’s producers contacted me, I thought it was a joke,” I shrugged. “But I said yes because my mom was so adamant about me doing it.”
She stared at me blankly. “So you’re not here because of Jacob?”
“Oh, is that his name?”
Her green eyes widened even more. I allowed myself a private smile; I knew his name, but I couldn’t help having a little fun at her expense.
The limo turned left onto an unpaved road and we bumped and jolted along for a few hundred feet before stopping in front of a palatial mansion that spread out in either direction along the horizon. The quiet chatter in the backseat came to a stop as realization simultaneously hit us: We were here. This was really happening.
The partition window rolled down to reveal two figures in the front seat: our uniformed driver, and one of the producers from the show.
“Okay, ladies,” the showrunner announced, “it’s time to meet our lucky guy.”
The other women primped their hair and checked their teeth for lipstick residue while one thought ran wild in my head: Was it too late to change my mind?
The door nearest to me opened, and the driver stuck out his hand to help me out of the low-riding car.
“Thank you,” I said with growing apprehension.
I stepped out of the limo and self-consciously brushed my palms down the front of my dress. The women in my group looked like disco balls and prom queens. In my short black dress, I felt very plain in comparison. We had only been allowed two suitcases, yet we’d been instructed to be prepared for any occasion, in both warm and cold climates, in addition to fourteen gowns for the rose ceremonies. I hadn’t owned a single dress prior to this experience. The cost of me being a contestant on this show had been a financial burden on my mother, but she had been relentless in her pursuit to get me here. My father had passed many years ago and it had only been the two of us for some time. My static love life had been on her radar ever since I’d returned to Michigan to take care of her.
I walked unsteadily on high heels that sank in uneven, scorched earth toward a large water fountain in front of the adobe-style architecture of the mansion. An attractive man in a meticulously tailored black suit and tie stood beside the water feature. His serious blue eyes watched me as I approached. I noticed that his stare never left my face. As I got closer, the dimple in his right cheek deepened when he smiled.
“Hi,” I greeted. The word nearly got stuck in my throat. I was rarely nervous meeting new people, but I was acutely aware of the multiple cameras that recorded our interaction.
“Hello,” he returned. “I’m Jacob. And you’re stunning.”
“No, I’m Nokomis.”
His heavy black eyebrows crunched together. “Nokomis?” he repeated.
“It’s my name.” I felt my face growing warm. “It means ‘grandmother’ in Ojibwe.”
“Well you’re certainly the most beautiful grandmother I’ve ever seen.”
I covered my mouth with my hand as an obnoxiously loud laugh burst out of my lungs. I hated my laugh. If women were supposed to be dainty and demure, then my laugh was the exact opposite.
“That’s quite the line,” I wryly observed.
“Did it work?”
Jacob’s easy demeanor could almost make me forget that whatever we said would later be edited and broadcast to millions of people across the country, including my mother. It was a sobering thought.
“I should probably get inside,” I excused myself. “There’s a line forming behind me.”
He grinned even wider, looking equal parts boyish and charming. “Sounds good. I’ll see you soon.”
I flashed him a quick smile and then followed a crew member inside the house. She was a short woman in pleated khaki pants and an oversized blue t-shirt. I wondered if women on the crew side of the show were instructed to dress as ordinary as possible so as to not compete for Jacob’s attentions.
Our limo had been one of the last to arrive because the mansion was already abuzz with activity. Women in cocktail dresses crowded around every available mirror, freshening up makeup and teasing life into their Brazilian blowouts. I watched the frenetic chaos with mounting anxiety.
“Jacob has a few more women to meet outside and then we’ll start filming in the house,” the crewwoman told me. “You’ll have a little time to get settled and introduce yourself to the other women before the fun begins.”
“Fun?” I laughed. “We’ll see.”
I retreated down a hallway in the opposite direction of the chaos and commotion coming from the other half of the house. I poked my head into a few rooms, all empty bedrooms, in exploration. It appeared as though no one had set claim to anything in the house yet, minus the mirror space, and our two pieces of luggage had yet to arrive.
I tried the handle of another closed door and, finding it unlocked, I pushed the door open. I entered a small powder room, which was currently occupied-another of the contestants was washing her hands. She wore a short red dress made shorter with high heels. Her dark brunette hair hit the center of her back. My gaze inadvertently traveled to the muscle definition of her thighs. She looked like a runner or a soccer player.
“I’m sorry,” I quickly apologized. “I was just looking for where they put our luggage.”
“They won’t move our bags inside until after the rose ceremony,” she told me, looking unaffected that I’d walked in on her. “There’s no point in unpacking since seven of us are going home tonight.”
My head bobbed. “That makes sense.”
“What are you?”
The woman looked me up and down. Her stare made me feel even more out of place as though she could tell with just one look that I didn’t really belong. “Are you biracial? Hispanic? I can’t figure it out.”
“Anishinaabe,” I supplied.
“What is that?”
“It’s, uh, it’s like Native American, only I’m from Canada, and Native Canadian isn’t really a thing.”
I had long struggled to explain my heritage to most Euro-Americans. Aboriginal peoples could seem as ancient and extinct as the dinosaurs, not someone you might meet at the grocery store.
“Well whatever you are, your skin is flawless.”
I cleared my throat. “Thanks.”
“I’m Candace, by the way,” she introduced herself. “I’m a twenty-eight-year-old small-business owner from Florida.”
“Nokomis. Twenty-seven,” I recited. “Freelance artist from Ontario, Canada.” After numerous months of screening and testing to get to this point, the introduction format had become second-nature.
“You’re lucky.” Candace leaned in close to the vanity mirror and tugged at the skin near her eyes. “You’ll stick out and become a fan favorite for sure. And you’re not, like, too dark which is in your favor. Girls with dark skin never make it very far.”
“They don’t?” I naively asked.
“Everyone watching at home likes to think that this is all random, but there’s a system to it,” she said. “It’s a game, just like any other reality competition.”
“You mean you’re not looking for love?” I laughed uneasily.
She didn’t crack a smile as though she couldn’t afford to waste one on me. “Jacob isn’t just picking who he wants to date. He’ll vote women to the next round as long as the producers think they’ll make for good TV. That’s why contestants with the craziest, biggest personalities go further than the pretty wallflowers. And only two kinds of women win this show,” she added. “Flight attendants and kindergarten teachers.”
“I’m not either of those,” I thought aloud.
“I bet you make it to the Final Four,” Candace said with some finality. “I’ll be gone before we even get out of the country.”
It was clear that Candace possessed a blunt, no-nonsense personality. Normally I admired that kind of forthrightness, but in this unique setting it made me feel under-prepared. Our run-in left me less than eager to mingle with the other women. Instead of hanging out in the large living room and waiting for Jacob with the others, I grabbed a bottled water from the bar and slinked outside.
The yard in the back of the mansion was fenced in with tall privacy shrubs that kept prying eyes out and us contestants in. Plastic lounge chairs surrounded an in-ground pool. It was a warm night and the air was dry. The sky was still starless, but the nearly full moon hung low in the sky. Pale moonlight shimmered across the pool’s chlorinated surface.
I sat down on one of the lounge chairs and slipped off my high heels. The concrete was still warm from that day’s desert temperatures and the residual heat felt good against the bottoms of my feet.
“Nokomis,” I heard a male voice call my name, “I’ve been looking for you.”
Jacob’s dress shoes clicked on the concrete that surrounded the pool. Two figures followed him, a man with an oversized television camera propped on his shoulder and the blue t-shirted woman from before.
“What are you doing out here by yourself?” he asked.
I squinted into the bright light attached to the large camera. “It was a little overwhelming in there,” I answered truthfully. “I needed some air.”
“I hear that. Are you cold?” Without waiting for my response, he started to remove his suit jacket.
He ignored my protest and instead laid his suit jacket over my bare shoulders. “Sorry. It’s for production value,” he stated quietly. “They eat this stuff up.”
He took the vacant space beside me on the lounge chair. “So, where are you from, Nokomis?” he asked in a louder voice, this one meant for the camera.
“Canada, originally. But I’ve been living in northern Michigan with my mom for the past year. She’s, like, a superfan of the show.”
“How about you? Are you a fan?”
I shook my head. “I watched it here and there, I guess, but not religiously.”
“You said your name was Obijwe, does that mean you are, too?”
“Half,” I confirmed. I ran my palms over my bare knees. “My dad was white, but my mother’s family is Ojibwe.”
“Your dad was white?” Jacob asked, picking up on the verb tense.
Before I could respond, I heard the sound of someone clearing her throat. A freckle-faced redhead in a long blue gown stood a few yards away. “Hi,” she said with a dazzling smile. “Mind if I steal this guy?”
“Sure. Go ahead.”
Jacob stood up from the bench. “We’ll have to continue this at a later time,” he apologized.
I nodded and held back my grimace. I had known being on a show like this would require I share details about my life, my childhood, but I wasn’t eager to open up.
“Oh,” I said, remembering. “Jacob, wait. Your jacket.” I stood and shrugged off the suit coat.
Jacob took the jacket back from me and draped it over his forearm. “Thanks, Grandma.”
“That’s definitely not becoming a thing,” I scolded.
He grinned that same boyish smile from before. “Too late.”
“Grandma?” I heard the redhead question as they walked away.
The remainder of the night passed quickly between individual on-camera interviews and trying to learn the other women’s names. I had no talent for remembering details, and I felt overwhelmed on Jacob’s behalf as he flit from one woman to the next over the course of the night.
Before the evening drew too late, producers ushered us into a large room occupied by two sets of risers. In the center of the room was a small table upon which a pile of long-stem roses had been arranged. The cocktail party was over. It was time for seven of us to go home.
I felt conflicted as I stood on the riser, flanked by the other women, as Jacob began the arduous process of choosing which contestants would survive the night. Did I want to go home? Or did I want to ride this adventure out for as long as possible? Ever since I’d returned to the reservation to take care of my mom, my world had felt very small. But I knew it had been the right move--the right thing to do. I had been living on my own after getting my MFA and working to pay off my grad school loans when I’d gotten the call that my mom had slipped on ice and had broken her hip. She wasn’t so old that the injury was life-threatening, but she didn’t have anyone to take her to the doctor or bring her to physical therapy. Her hip had since healed, but I was having a hard time moving out again and leaving her on her own now that she was well.
A gentle poke in the small of my back had me snapping to attention. Across the room, Jacob stared at me, twirling a red rose between his fingers. I couldn’t figure out what was happening. It was like when the teacher catches you sleeping during class and you don’t know the question that’s been asked.
“I think that’s you,” someone behind me urged. Hands returned to the small of my back and they gently nudged me forward.
The women who surrounded me moved so I could step down the risers and cross the room.
Jacob grinned when I stood before him. “Grandma Nokomis, will you accept this rose?”
Now was my chance to back out before things got too serious; I didn’t have to say yes. But as I stared at the deep red rose that Jacob offered me, I was reminded of my mother who had practically taken out a second mortgage on her house so I could have this opportunity.
“Sure,” I decided, smiling at the nickname.
“Cut!” someone off-camera yelled. “Sweetie, can you try to look a little happier about being selected?”
I bit down on my lower lip. “I’m sorry.” I blew out a long, tense breath. “Sorry,” I said, this time more quietly for Jacob’s benefit.
“It’s okay,” he reassured me. “I know this can be a little much.”
“Jacob,” one of the directors called, “try your line again.”
Jacob’s face returned to a serious visage. “Nokomis, will you accept this rose?”
I plastered a smile to my face. “Yes, of course,” I chirped, feeling equal parts plastic and forced.
I walked the long-stemmed rose back to my place on the risers. The girls in my way parted to make room for me, and I caught more than a few sympathetic glances thrown in my direction.
A few more names were called until Jacob had whittled the number of contestants down to twenty-one. Those of us with roses remained on the risers while the dismissed women were quickly skirted to another part of the mansion for their final interviews before they’d be sent home, or at least back to the hotel in Santa Fe.
A soft voice, barely a perceptible whisper, reached my ears: “You’re bleeding.”
I looked around, not sure from where the voice had originated. Everyone had their eyes on Jacob as he held a champagne glass in the air and gave a heartfelt speech about how excited he was about this journey and how he was confident that his future wife was in the room.
“Your hand. It’s bleeding,” the same voice, this time a little louder, spoke.
I looked down to my hands to see a thin line of crimson dribbling down my forearm. I had been clutching the rose too tightly and an errant thorn had scratched me. I wiped the blood from my arm and turned my head in the direction of the voice. It seemed to have come from the woman who stood directly behind me. I wondered if she had been the one who’d alerted me earlier when Jacob had said my name.
I noticed her dress first--in a short gold lamé dress and white blonde hair piled on top of her head, she looked like the angel topper on a Christmas tree. She was shorter than me, but because she stood on the tallest row of risers, we were at eye level. Her irises were dark blue with a small hazel circle around the pupils. She, like me, held one of the coveted roses.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
I sucked my index finger into my mouth and tasted the iron tang of the blood. “Yeah. A thorn snagged me, I guess.”
Her mouth curved upward to form a pleasant smile. “They never warned us this process would be dangerous to our health.”
“Shit,” I heard a crew member curse. She was a serious-looking woman whose face was partially hidden by the ball cap she wore. “Ben,” she barked at a man hovering in the wings, “I told you to take all the thorns off the roses.”
“I’m sorry!” the man squeaked. “I must have missed one.” His relative youth and the panicked look on his face made me think he was an intern or at least very low on the chain of command.
“It’s okay,” I appeased. “It’s just a little cut.”
The stern-faced woman grabbed my uninjured hand and tugged me down the bleachers. “Come on, we’ll have a medic take a look. Can’t have the Talent injured on the first night.”
I swept one last desperate look in the direction of the blonde woman in the gold dress. Her blue eyes and crooked smile watched me get pulled away. She held her hand up and wiggled her fingers in parting.
+ + +
It was determined that I would survive the night and get to keep all my fingers. Once my wound was cleaned and bandaged, I was given instructions to find my suitcases, which had been transferred to the bedrooms during the selection process.
My luggage was in the first bedroom I looked. The room was sparsely populated with a bunk bed in each corner of the room. Quick mental math told me there were at least three similar bedrooms elsewhere in the house. Because I’d been delayed by the cut on my finger, all but one of the beds had already been claimed.
I wondered which room the girl who’d spoken to me after the rose ceremony had been assigned. I started to poke my head out the bedroom door to see if I could spot her, but I nearly ran into Candace, the woman from the powder room.
Candace strode into the bedroom. “Hey, looks like we’re roomies, Pocahontas.”
Candace ignored my correction and threw herself down on the bottom bunk of the bed where I’d be sleeping. “God, it’s like summer camp up in here,” she huffed. “I can’t wait for the next round to be axed.”
“How many get eliminated next?”
Candace squinted her eyes at me. “You really don’t watch this show, do you?”
I shook my head.
“We started at twenty-eight tonight, but now we’re down to twenty-one. Next week three more women will go home, so we’ll be at eighteen.”
“Ten go home within a week,” I thought out loud.
“Uh huh. And only fourteen will actually leave the mansion. Usually they go to an alternate location within the country first,” she noted, “but we’re so close to Mexico it might make sense to leave the country right away. Twelve or eleven will then go on to some tropical destination, six women get to meet Jacob’s family, four women will introduce Jacob to their family, three get whisked away to someplace super exotic, and then he’ll narrow it down to the final two women.”
I soaked in the details as best as I could. “You said you thought I’d make it to the final four,” I recalled.
Candace laughed. “Yeah, are you ready for America to meet your family?”
No. A world of no.