College and Not Doing NaNoWriMo

Whew. I’m reallyyyyy behind on my posts, obviously, which is a bad thing (or is for anybody who actually reads my stuff!). So here’s a post to make up for it.

Things I’ve learned in my first few weeks of college:

  • UCLA is a very, very happy place. I’m not a happy person, but it’s a happy place.
  • Homework!
  • Some people are very close-minded.
  • Need to make more time for writing.
  • College is amazing for finding love.
  • I have the best roommate, ever.
  • I’m very lucky.

Things I’m finally getting around to:

  • QUERYING! I have four manuscripts ready, so, as Ellie Goulding says, what are you waiting for?
  • Blog posts. This. I’ve missed this (even when nobody reads it).
  • Web serial! Again, no idea if anybody reads, ever. But it’s still fun. And worth it.
  • Keeping track of my pitch contests and pitch parties. Because I’ve missed about three good ones in the last month, and I’m not happy about it.
  • Not doing NaNoWriMo.

I actually do want to say something about NaNoWriMo. I know a lot of writers live by it, and that it’s a pretty big deal for them. I tried it last year, and I get it – I respect their feelings. But for me, NaNo is occasionally a useful tool, and most times it’s unnecessary stress that leads to bad manuscripts. The truth is that I’m basically in NaNo mode year round, with short month breaks in between. In September, I wrote over 150k words in novels alone. I like doing my own, individual NaNo, without the pressure of finishing in their time span by their rules, and I don’t need NaNo when I’m usually writing that much anyway.

I’ve only used NaNo once. Last year. I’d stopped finishing novels for a good six months or more, and I had a very personal story that had to be written – shitty or not. NaNo was perfect for that. It built my discipline and my pacing for when I’m not doing NaNo, and it gave me a chance to experiment on a story I was never going to publish – and get it done in a timely fashion. I won’t speak of that novel or show it to anybody ever, but it did a lot to finesse my writing style and get me back in the groove.

So yes, I’m grateful to NaNo, but no, I won’t be doing it this year.

Or – another way of looking at it…I’ll do it my own way. Every other month, by my own rules, because I never play well by the rules of others.

Universe

There is a universe out there. It’s a big, beautiful universe, the kind you stumble on in your sleep, the kind you never expect to find until you find it – and then it’s there in front of you, and you’re left blinking in its brilliance, star struck. There are lights everywhere, and colors, and music you’ve never heard before pounding in your ears – languages nobody understands – people who are exactly like you, and completely different. It’s like stepping into a totally different world, not knowing where you are, but knowing you never want to leave.

And then you share that world with the people around you. You do everything you can to bring them into that universe, to share it with them – these people you’ve met, the cities you’ve visited, the amazing technology you’ve experienced. And it’s a struggle, the struggle of making it as real to them as it is to you, the struggle of bringing them into that world and giving them the full experience, every little detail.

At some point, it becomes too much, and you’re left wishing you could just step into that world and live in it forever, leave reality behind. But you can’t, because there isn’t an easy door into the world – if you want to share the experience, you have to pour every bit of your heart and soul and passion and imagination into doing so.

That’s my philosophy, anyway. It’s one of the biggest reasons I write. One of the biggest reasons I compose music and dance and dream of acting, too – all of it is about bringing yourself, and others, into a totally new, amazing, different place.

Welcome to the world of a writer’s imagination.

a home called Nowhere 2.3

She feeds me soup.

I don’t have a thing against soup, usually, because usually I never eat it. It’s hot out here, the kill me and send me to hell because it’ll be colder than this kind of hot that scorches you to the bone and has you wishing you could strip down to nothing – except you can’t, because then the sun would burn you so bad your skin would be the color of a radish. It’s hot, and soup is also hot, so soup is basically the worst food you could ever eat.

In my experience, anyway.

Of course, she could serve it cold. But that’d be even worse. So instead, I just wrinkle my nose and flinch and sip at the soup, trying to focus on anything except the way the liquid burns my tongue. My mouth feels like it’s on fire. I think she must’ve added chili peppers or some shit, because the stuff is spicy as hell, too. Spicy and hot. The best of both worlds. She’s doing this on purpose, almost like a test – I can tell from the way she smiles at every spoonful, as if she’s enjoying this stuff like it’s the most amazing thing in the world. I try not to roll my eyes at her. I need her help – at least for now.

“So,” I say, around a bit of meat with a bone poking out of it, “what gives?”

“Mm?”

I put the spoon down. It clinks, hard, against the bowl, and a bit of liquid splashes up. I think I’m barely a tenth of the way through the stuff. Don’t know if I can handle any more. “Your big secrets, all the shit you promised you’d tell me. What’s it all about? Why’re we here in this big fucking hellhole?”

“Oh, yeah.” She sets her bowl down, spins her chair and reaches over. “Wait…we need a soundtrack first.”

“A what?”

“Soundtrack.” It takes me a moment to notice the radio behind her, and by then she’s already flicking the switch on, and it sputters to life with a low growl – like an animal waking up from hibernation. The lights flutter and the screen buzzes with static, and then there’s a song playing from it, too loud, a man’s voice droning on about his girlfriend to the background of guitars and a heavy beat.

“Better.” She ignores my look, picks up her bowl again. “So, you don’t tell people I’m telling you this, ‘cause I don’t know if they’d like it much, trusting you. But I figure you have a right to know.”

“But the point of the tattoo -”

“Yes, but still.” She stirs her soup slowly. “This place, this isn’t a hellhole, ‘kay? That’s the first thing you gotta know. I’ll show you later, but it’s a hell of a lot bigger and nicer than it looks. It’s called the City, or i hangra in our language. It’s where all the junkers stay, once we’re back from our runs. It’s home base. It’s the safest place you can be – lots of people here, lots of guns.”

“Doesn’t sound safe to me.”

“Well, it is, and you’d better believe it. Second thing…our language. You keep wondering about it. Some guy invented it a bazillion years back as code, so nobody else would know what his group was saying. It spread to the rest of the junkers, began to broaden and get more complicated, so it was like a real language. You’ll learn it someday. Not now, though, we haven’t got time. For now, you’ll have to pick up bits and pieces here and there. It was supposed to be to keep us secret from humans, but now we use it as code around the zombies, too.”

“Zombies…”

“The undead.” She shrugs. “Undead isn’t really right, though, and zombie isn’t either. Eena is the neutral name. Thing is, these things aren’t quite undead, as you’ve seen, and they aren’t anybody’s idea of zombies. It’s like what Mariah always says – zombies are just an urban myth, undead are just an urban myth. Eena are real.”

I nod slowly. “So these…things…what are they? Where’d they come from?”

She clucks her tongue. “The eena? We don’t know. Still trying to figure that out, in fact. All we know is that they’re bad, by their own fault or not. But they’ve been taking over city after city, devouring all the people. Only i hangra is sure to stay untouched, at least for now. We’ve got enough fighters here to keep the eena scared. They’ve tried hitting us here, though. If they find the garay, we will be absolutely fuckin’ done.”

“Garay?”

“The gates. They go underground. Most of i hangra is underground.” She picks at her nails restlessly. Steam rises between us, from the soups.

“Underground?”

“We thought it’d be safer that way. Problem is, eena love the underground. They thrive there. Light and fire are their worst enemies, but the dark – they love it. There’s a lot of fire down there, of course, and light to live by, but down there they won’t have to worry about the sun, or the moon, or the stars, or the heat. So no matter what we try, we think the eena would overrun our people if they got past the garay.”

I swallow.

“I know,” Thalay shrugs, “it’s heavy stuff. Especially for a little girl like you. But you get used to it. Life is all about outrunning death. Surviving. It’s just the -”

“I’m not just a little girl, Thalay. I had more responsibilities at home than -”

Her eyes flash. “Don’t you dare finish that sentence.”

“…than you do here,” I say, in a voice so quiet it’s almost a whisper.

She shakes her head. Turns away. I think I see her eyes glint in the light, but I’m probably imagining it. “I had my own family to take care of, ishka. They died. All of them took by the eena. I lost them that day, same way you lost yours. But at least you only saw one die in front of you. Not the little baby or the momma. I saw everyone die. Daddy. Momma. My older brothers. The two little twins. They were just babies, no name yet, ‘cause we always waited two months to name them. Till we knew they’d lived long enough to earn a name.”

She doesn’t look at me. Just hunches over, shoulders heaving. I can hear the memories in her voice.

“I wasn’t Thalay then. I was Elisabeth. I was little Lissie and I was running, but I knew I couldn’t run fast enough, ‘cause the moment the undead caught sight of me they’d catch up and I’d be dead. But the junkers came first. Took out their fire wands and fought the undead. One of the junkers died in front of my eyes, Jo. The junkers aren’t bad people – they’re brave – that’s the first day I learned it.” She shakes her head. “I took on one of their names. Thalay, for lost. Because I was lost that day, and they found me.”

“I’m sorry,” I whisper. I feel suddenly horrible for all of the mean things I’ve thought, all of the mean things I’ve said about her.

“Jo is a name in our language, too,” she continues, her voice soft. “It’s a nice name.”

“Yeah? What does it mean?”

She swallows, looks around at me. Her eyes glint with tears…her voice is soft.

“Egotistical,” she says, and finishes her soup.

(i hangra does not mean the City. As Mariah tells me afterwards, i hangra means Nowhere. So the City is…well, it’s a home called Nowhere.)

a home called Nowhere 2.2

I’m afraid of needles. Momma always said I was ridiculous to be, that I was just shitting her, that a girl like me shouldn’t be afraid of something as small as a needle. But needles…there’s something about them that’s always put a bad taste in my mouth. They always seem like they were only ever made for a bad purpose. Or for purposes that don’t matter – at least the ones that you’re supposed to put in your skin. I’ve always hated how they shine in the light, long and thin and sharp, and you can’t help but think, oh, this looks lethal.

Thalay seems not to care. She, at least, doesn’t give a shit about needles. To her, they’re just tools. If they’re useful, they’re useful. Otherwise, snap them in half and be done with it.

She laughs at me when I squirm, laughs at the look I give her when the artist pulls out his contraption – a bunch of metal stuck together with one big needle coming out the end. He doesn’t have to ask what I want – he knows he hasn’t seen me before, and it’s obvious Thalay’s the one that brought me, and if I’m new and a djibri brought me, it must because I’m gonna get the djibri tattoo.

He sets me in a chair, turns on the lights above my head as bright as they’ll go – till they almost blind me, till we’re the only bright point in the dark room. “Don’t piss your pants, honey,” he says, in a low, gruff voice, same accent as me and my Momma. “It’s just a needle. For making art.” I wonder if he’s from our city.

“It’s for making art…on my skin,” I say. I’d like to pretend my voice doesn’t quiver, but I’m painfully aware that both the man and Thalay know otherwise.

“On your skin. Just a little prick.”

Just a little prick.

It doesn’t feel like just a little prick. When he puts the needle against my skin, he keeps it in for what seems like forever, drags it along in sweeping strokes that leave my skin red along the edges of the art, dark with ink inside. Thalay smiles at it, as if she enjoys watching me squirm – which she probably does. I grit my teeth the whole time, my jaw clenched so tight that it aches, every muscle tight, my hands fisted against the arms of my chair.

The man laughs when he finally pulls the needle away. “Not so bad, eh?”

I don’t know if he means not so bad for you, or the artwork isn’t so bad, but I take it the second way to stop myself from knocking his teeth out. Or Thalay’s – I’m not sure which.

When I look down at my arm, though, I can’t help but admit that he’s done a good job. The lines are beautifully precise, each one flowing into the next. The scorpion almost pops out, three-dimensional, from my arm, its claws huge, stinger raised over its head like it’s about to strike. Djibri. Whether I like it or not, I’m one of them now, and I’m stuck with it.

“Okay,” I say quietly, swallowing hard. Okay. That’s all I can think to say. Don’t you have any brains, Joanna?

Thalay smirks. “Jo says thanks,” she says to the man, and drags me outside.

“That. Was. Horrible.”

“Oh, come on, Jo. It wasn’t that bad.”

“It was fuckin’ -”

“Do you want to know why we’re here, or not?”

My head flicks up. Yes, I want to scream. Yes yes yes. Of course I want to know why we’re here! I don’t like the fact that nobody will tell me, because I hate not knowing, because I hate having to fight off the feeling that they trust me just as little as I trust them. I want to know. I don’t want to be walking around a desert full of undead, blindfolded and with my arms tied behind my back.

But I don’t say it. I don’t say any of that, because I don’t want to seem overeager, because I don’t want the tattoo artist to overhear and realize that Thalay and her group have been keeping me in the dark all this time. And I don’t want Thalay to laugh at me, which I know she will, if I admit exactly how much I want to know everything. So instead I just bite my tongue and keep my mouth shut and shrug, as if I don’t care, as if it doesn’t really matter to me.

Thalay shakes her head. “You really are an idiot, Jo. Here’s the thing. Why do you think I made you get that tat? Because I wanted to see you squirm?”

I tip my head. “Probably,” I say, deadpan, so she can’t tell if I’m being sarcastic or not.

“Bitch. I don’t like seeing people hurt, even though you probably wouldn’t believe me.” She sighs. “And I wasn’t doing it just to be all nice to you, either, although I can see how you might -”

“Don’t worry,” I cut in. “I didn’t think that.”

“Figured.” She glares at me. “I made you get that tat, you idiot, because it’s what makes you one of us. And if you’re obviously one of us, you can’t run away easily and join another group and spill secrets. And more than that, it means the others won’t get angry and kick me from the team if they know I’ve told you secrets.”

She stops, waits for that to sink in. It takes a moment, because the little gears inside my head are spinning around and around, trying to register all of the implications of what she’s just said. Because, as far as I can tell, Thalay actually just tried to help me. Unless I’m crazy, she’s saying that she got me the tat so that she could tell me things. Secrets. So that when she did, the rest of the group wouldn’t get angry at her, or at me. “So the tat is a rite of passage,” I say, slowly.

“It’s a mark of trust. Both from us to you, and you to us.” She rolls her eyes at me. “Now, if you’ll stop being a total idiot, I’ll explain what’s going on. But you have to promise me something, Jo, and you better stick to it, because now you’ve got that tat, breaking any promises to me, or any of the rest of the group, doesn’t mean you’ll be counted just as a freakish runaway. You’ll be counted as a traitor. And you know what we do to traitors?”

I raise my eyebrows. “Kill them?”

She laughs. “No… we feed them to the undead.”

My jaw drops.

“Just kidding,” she admonishes, winking – and then she grabs my wrist and pulls me back in the direction of her place. “So…where should I start?”

a home called Nowhere 2.1

“Thalay!” I half shriek, before she manages to get her hand all the way over my mouth.

Too late. A couple of the tallest men turn to stare at me, their brows furrowing darkly over their squinted eyes. One of them glances at Mariah, his mouth quirking in distaste. “Is she one of your djibri?”

If I’d been her, I think, I would’ve squirmed, would’ve squirmed bad. But she doesn’t even blink an eye. Instead, she just turns and gives Thalay a look, her voice carefully level – not cold, really, but definitely not warm, either. It’s the kind of voice, the kind of look that makes me think oh, shit, but Thalay hardly seems to notice – or doesn’t care, anyhow. “She is,” Mariah says slowly, out of the side of her mouth, “one of us. Thalay, get your hand off her lips.”

One of the men laughs. It’s a low laugh, and it makes me fume. He’s laughing at me. I’m sure of it. But then he turns to his comrade, and points, and his finger wavers on Thalay instead.

She scowls. I blink and turn away, hoping she won’t notice the glint in my eyes. I may not like her much, but I don’t wanna be on her bad side.

“Take me to Umbra,” Mariah says, after a moment.

The man dips his head. “If Umbra will see you, yeah, I’ll take you.” They seem to make an effort to speak in my tongue, not in normal Junker, and I can’t understand why. I’ve noticed it ever since Mariah called the undead the eena, because she hasn’t let the word slip since. Almost as if she’s afraid to speak in Junker.

I highly doubt they’re speaking normal for my benefit, anyway.

Mariah narrows her eyes at the man. “Umbra will see me.”

“You are a woman.”

Djibri -” she stops, clears her throat, “our own have chosen me as their speaker, with respect. Take me to Umbra.”

She says the last word so sharply, so intensely that it’s as if she’s slashed a sword through the air. The man raises an eyebrow. “I’ll see what I can do, Mariah. But if I take you to Umbra, the others can’t come. They’ll have to go to their sector. Everything is in order. Umbra requests a meeting of the speakers tomorrow night at sunset. Bring only yourself and one guard.”

Mariah dips her head. I glance across at Thalay. What’s going on? I mouth.

She just gives me a look that says, shut up.

And then the others flood in. They look different than us – same rugged gear, but everything in red and brown colors, and they all have a single spiked tattoo curling along their neck. Most of them are taller and broader than we are, and their bikes are black, with strips of cloth hanging onto the handles and the backs of the bikes – almost like flags. They let us ride, but only slowly, and they flank us on all sides like some sort of fucked up motorcade.

The gang guarding the gang. Great.

I’m behind Thalay again. This time, everything feels bumpier, and the sweat trails down my face faster than before with no wind to whisk it away. The city is a labyrinth of stalls and people in doorways, everything built in stone and glass. It’s not so different than home, excepted that everybody here has that extra rugged thing I’ve come to think of as the junker look.

My helmet keeps out the most of the sand, but that doesn’t stop my throat from feeling raw, ragged, and hoarse. I stop trying to speak, because it hurts too much. I need water. I need it badly, but I’m too tired to ask for it. They probably wouldn’t give it to me anyway, if I brought it up.

Then we’re spreading out, each of us going in a different direction, and Thalay’s dismounting, pulling me and the bike along with her, speaking in a low, raspy whisper.

“First,” she says, “we get water, because I’m fucking dehydrated. Then we’re gonna get you a tat, because otherwise you won’t have a free pass to live. The people here don’t trust easily. You gotta have some way to show them like that, that you’re one of us. Tat’s the only way.”

Tat. Tattoo? I don’t want a tattoo. I’m scared of needles. But Thalay wouldn’t listen if I told her, so what’s the point of bringing it up?

Besides, better to be poked with ten thousand needles than to die one death.

We park the bike by a low house set into the ground, gleaming where the sun touches it, dark where cloth umbrellas cast it in shadow. Thalay goes down first, swings the door open without knocking. “This is my place,” she says. “You’ll be in here with me, too. Can’t trust a new girl to have her own place.”

“You could, actually,” I mutter under my breath.

I must’ve muttered it too loud, because Thalay swings her head around to glare at me. “No,” she snaps, “we can’t. We’d be trusting a stranger with their own life. You’d probably run the first chance you got, and be dead by the next sunset.”

“Didn’t think you were a pessimist.”

“Didn’t think you were an imbecile.” She pauses, grabbing a big metal thing and setting it into a wall basin with a loud clank. “Actually, cross that. I always knew you were an imbecile.”

I shake my head. “Who’s Umbra and what’s this city?”

She pulls the metal thing up and drinks from it in a long, loud gulp. “Lots of things you don’t understand, Jo – can I call you that? Jo? There isn’t time to explain everything.”

“We have time right now.”

“We’d be wasting it. You wouldn’t understand half of it anyway.” She hands me the metal thing and makes me drink from it before I can say anything else, and I almost choke – it tastes salty somehow, enough that it burns just a bit as it goes down. She laughs at my expression. “Used to having it more purified?”

“This is saltwater!”

“Not really. It’s mostly normal. You’re just sensitive and overly picky. People can’t survive off saltwater, that stuff is filtered. Just not enough for your taste.” She plucks the thing from my hands and sets it on the ground, pushing me outside. “Let’s go get you a tat.”

“Do I get to choose the design?”

“This is why I never explain anything to you,” Thalay rolls her eyes at me. “You never listen. It’s supposed to mark you as one of us, so you have to get the same tat as we’ve got.”

“Which is?”

“A scorpion.” She winks at me. “Because were never afraid to sting. Never slow to strike. We are djibri, Jo.”

Djibri. That word again. It makes me want to ask her about why Mariah keeps talking in non Junker, but I figure she’s probably run out of patience by now. She probably wouldn’t explain even if I asked.

I’m in no rush, anyway. I have a feeling I’ll be stuck with Thalay for a while longer.

a home called Nowhere 2.0

We ride until the town is a tiny pinpoint in the distance, like a cluster of black specks on the horizon. Night becomes day and the sun is high in the sky, beating down on us with its burning whip, and I’m sweating beneath my helmet, my face slick with the stuff. Back at the outskirts of the town, we stopped somewhere unnamed and Thalay came out with some gloves and better junker gear. I don’t ask how she got them. I’m not sure I want to know. They make me hot and uncomfortable, but at least they keep me better protected.

“Are we going anywhere?” I ask, after what must be hours. Judging from the sun, it’s gotta be around noon – the only time I can tell without a watch. Our shadows are long, stretching out before us like some strange avatar of darkness.

“Of course we are,” Thalay says. I can’t be sure, but she sounds almost confused. “We’re riding, right?”

I curl my hands, inspecting the way the leather of my new gloves wrinkles in my palms. “I meant… do we have anyplace in mind? Anywhere to stop? Or are we just gonna keep riding till we go off the face of the earth?”

She turns towards me. Her helmet is like a mirror, and I can hardly see anything except the sun reflecting against its visor. I imagine she’s wrinkling her nose at me in amusement, but when she speaks, she doesn’t sound amused. “We’re just gonna ride off the face of the earth,” she says dry. “I hear it’s wild.”

I sigh. Roll my eyes. Typical Thalay, smartassing me as usual. For a minute, I wish I were riding with anybody else – and then I remember that she’s the one that asked to stop and pick up my new gear. Maybe I should be more gracious.

“Thanks for the clothes,” I say.

“Just trying to keep you alive,” she mutters back.

The ride is monotonous. Boring. The desert seems to stretch and stretch in front of us, to all sides, and at some point my eyes start hurting at how golden it is, how all the plants look exactly the same – dried, but still somewhat green. I don’t know what to do to keep myself from drifting off to sleep, so I think.

I know what Daddy used to tell me. Use your brain, Joanna. Thinking is dangerous. It’s your greatest weapon.

It’s also a double-edged sword.

I know it is, because my mind always wanders to the worst things it could possibly wander to. That starts with home. Home. I think that this time, my mind goes back home out of habit, because I’m so used to home being my everything, my world, the only place that matters anymore. But that doesn’t make it hurt any less.

I don’t know if my mind is just very good at making me feel like I’m actually there, or if I’ve fallen asleep and I’m dreaming, but I’m standing in front of the porcelain sink and it looks – it feels – for all the world like it’s real.

“Joanna?”

I lift my head. My hands are dirty, grimy from scrubbing the basin, and the rag hangs, brown and thin, from my fingers. There Daddy is, big and strong like always, his muscles practically bulging beneath his shirt. I must be twelve. This is from when I was twelve. I remember this day.

“Joanna! I’ll be at work all tomorrow. You can fend for the family, can’t you, hon?”

I remember lifting my head. Staring him in the eyes. Nodding. My mother already had issues by this point – drugs, alcohol, almost anything bad a person can get into – and I shouldered half the burden of keeping the family running. Daddy knew that. I think he appreciated it.

“I can, Daddy,” I said. My voice sounded high pitched, or I imagine it would, compared to my voice now. I was smaller, too. Funny how people grow bigger with time. And then they shrink again, eventually.

Ashes to ashes. Everything starts somewhere and ends up the same place they started from, eventually.

“Good girl. You’re a good, brave girl, Jo. Don’t you ever forget it.” He’d ruffled my hair, and given me one of his big daddy smiles, the ones I’d learned to cherish because they came so rarely. I’d smiled back, and went back to washing. Momma was in the bedroom, doing who knows what. My little sister, Elsie, was clinging to the puppy that wouldn’t last six months longer, and the baby wasn’t born yet.

“Thank you, Daddy,” I’d murmured obediently. He’d smiled at me. Left, as if he’d be back tomorrow.

I’d washed more. Put Elsie to bed, and made dinner, and brought her some in her bedroom. Cooked for Momma, too, and brought some back to her. I ate last, after the puppy. I always ate last. I was the peasant, in my own little world, and my family – puppy included – were my royalty.

I don’t remember sleeping at all that night. I just remember the clock on the wall ticking, ticking, so loud that it felt like a tap-tap, tap-tap-tap directly on my skull. The moonlight was soft through my window, and my curtains billowed.

It was winter. It was a cold winter. The house smelled of electricity, but at least it kept us from burning up. Even in the winter, even in cold winters, the desert was a fucking fire pit.

The clock ticked and ticked. The sky grew lighter – dark gray, then bluish, then tinged with gold. Most days I hated the sun, because it meant hot days made even hotter, but today I loved it. I cherished it. It meant Daddy would be home again.

This wasn’t the first time he’d gone overnight. I kind of hoped, though, that it’d be the last. I always hoped it’d be the last.

I was right, in the end. It was his last, but not like I’d hoped. He didn’t come back that day, or the next. I washed and I fed my family and I waited, but no Daddy. Never any Daddy. Just the sun, and my mother, and Elsie, and the puppy that died five months later. We buried her in the back. All I remember anymore was a ball of dirty, matted white fur and a puff of sand to cover her up.

Momma didn’t even seem to care, and I think Elsie truly believed our father was gonna come back. But I wasn’t sure what to believe. I didn’t know if I was even allowed to hope. I took our old, dusty calendar off the wall because nobody used it anymore, and I marked the day he disappeared, and every day since.

It was my own little tradition. I never stopped, not even to the last day before the junkers took me.

Now, thinking back on it, I should’ve given up earlier. I should’ve known he was gone for good. But I refused to believe it, even after they held a body-less funeral for him in the middle of the street with four people attending – me, Elsie, and two neighbors from across the street.

But I’m the kinda girl that likes to hope. I’ve stopped hoping for Daddy, but I haven’t for myself, not yet.

Because I’m still hoping that someday, this will all be over. That I’ll go back. That I’ll find my home again. Call me crazy, but I’d rather be crazy than hopeless.

I fall asleep in the middle of the afternoon, and when I wake up we’re no longer alone.

Human By Night: burning sands 1.2

I don't run. I walk.

We all walk. We walk with our staffs held in front of us, each step as quiet as possibly, our guns glinting on our backs. It feels fucked up somehow, like some sort of sneak mob going to hang somebody, but I don't bother to ask questions. I know we must be hunting undead. And hunting undead is always okay by me.

So maybe the clicking thing meant attack. Not run. Or… let's go hunting.

I have so many questions to ask, so many things I can't help but wonder about, but I don't say any of it, not now. I just focus on being as quiet as possible, on keeping the staff from burning me, on not burning anybody with the staff. The boy from earlier is just to my left. He looks younger in the firelight, with the flame illuminating his face. He glances sideways at me and frowns.

I frown back at him. He looks away.

I've never liked boys, not really. They're always so bossy and know-it-all, even when they don't know shit about anything. That's how it always was with the boys I knew, anyway.

The shadows move. I jump. They bug me, now, because I don't know if they'll suddenly materialize into another look-alike, or another undead with bare skin showing. Even with the fires of the staffs dancing against the walls of every building and the paving and dust of every street, I feel like the undead will somehow sneak up on me – sneak up on us.

I sneak a glance Thalay’s way. She's several people ahead of me, and she doesn't look a bit afraid. Her chin is up and she holds the staff naturally, as if she was born for it. Her helmet gleams in the light.

I wish I could be that confident. That easy. I bet I look like a scared little brat, the way I am now.

I turn to the shadows again, and I stop. Everybody else has stopped, too, and the men filter to the edges, like a protective circle. Out of the corner of my eye, I think I see Thalay slip to the edge, too, but I can't be sure. They turn the staffs so the ends are pointing away from them, straight in front of them.

They've seen what I've seen.

Eyes. Big eyes, so huge that it's uncanny, staring out of the shadows, completely black. It makes me want to take a step back. They move, too, little movements that rustle softly in the darkness, little movements and low, low growls that start deep in their throat.

The undead.

These are mostly naked. No clothes. Nothing to hide their true forms. When I turn to look behind us, I can make out more, but they're in junker uniform, like they were trying to blend in with us. In the firelight, they look almost human – except for their helmets… because behind their helmets, I can just make out their eyes.

One of the men jerks his staff forward, tip flaring. There's a noise from the shadows, and the eyes seem to become slightly smaller, almost like they're shrinking. They rustle as they move back, their limbs curling as they move.

Eena!” Mariah cries, raising her staff. “You come to hunt us, so we come to hunt you -”

Rawrrr!” Thalay yells from the edge, pushing her staff forward. Mariah glares at her. “What?” Thalay mutters. “Get on with it!”

And then she rushes forward.

For a moment, I'm scared that the rest haven't noticed. And then – how could they not notice? – they're surging forward next to Thalay, staffs thrust forward, and the dark little creatures and covering their eyes as they fall back, howling every time we poke and jab at them, letting out high, shrill screeches, screeches that chill my blood and make my palms sweaty –

The men are no longer in front. They're at the sides, and the women are in the middle, darting in and out, thrusting their staffs towards the undead with the tips flaring, burning, sparking. I hesitate, then join them, spinning my staff at the undead, my hands fighting not to slip against the handle.

Thalay is next to me. One moment she isn’t, and then she is, and we’re falling back, and I don’t understand, I don’t understand at all. All I know is that if they’re falling back, I’m falling back with them. I don’t question. I just do what they do, backing up step by step, staff in front of me, pressing towards the bikes. Mariah is shouting something but I can’t make out what she says, and I don’t even know if she’s saying it in English, or if it’s some mumbo jumbo I’ll never have a chance of understanding.

“Bikes,” Thalay hisses, as if she’s not sure I get it. And then she’s pulling me back with her, onto her bike.

I accept it. I don’t know if I’m supposed to be with her or not, but at least I’m on somebody’s bike, and that’s all that matters. Thalay’s kicking the bike into action before I’m fully on the back, and then we’re rushing forward again, and the sand up against my helmet and I’m fighting not to drop my staff.

Thalay doesn’t seem happy.

“What happened?” I ask, leaning forward so my helmet clinks lightly against hers. I’m half yelling to be heard.

“Too many,” she shouts back. “And we need to move fast. Those things run a lot faster than us. If we don’t move, we’ll be sitting ducks. I hope nobody’s low on charge, because only these bikes are gonna be able to outpace them.”

“But -”

“It wasn’t supposed to happen like that,” she shouts. She sounds angry – at herself more than anything. “There weren’t that many scouts. There shouldn’t have been so many waiting at the camp.” She shakes her head. “Those were new ones, too. They hadn’t been around long. I don’t know where they came from.”

“Do we know where any of them come from?”

She glances back at me, her hands tight on the handlebars of the bike. “Nope. Not really. But we know we see a lot of the fuckers more than once. And that’s the first time we’ve seen newborns. The ones today…they’d never been impostors before, most of them. Those were fresh.”

“They can be impostors more than once?”

She shrugs. “We don’t know how to kill them, Joanna. All we know is how to scare them, or hurt them enough that they lose their forms for a bit. But they always come back as someone new. In between, they take on their original selves, but they’re less powerful…sort of…than the newborns. They’re more wispy, almost. Mariah has a theory that if you kill them enough times, they die eventually. Eventually.”

“And there’s no way to tell impostors from the person they’re posing as?”

“Not unless you threaten them with the staff. They tend to let little things slip then. Sort of like their mask is imperfect, and you can kinda tell. But it’s hard. Even shining the staffs on them, you can’t always tell. It’s in the eyes. Sometimes they don’t get the eyes right, and you know it’s an impostor.”

I swallow. So I could see Elsie, or Momma, or the baby again, and it could be an impostor. I could have to kill Elsie…

Somehow, the fact that it wouldn’t really be Elsie doesn’t make the idea any easier to swallow.

“So technically I don’t know that you aren’t an impostor,” I say quietly.

She turns around, grinning beneath her helmet. “Rawr.”

I nod. Okay. “So basically it’s a free-for-all.”

She winks at me. “Have fun!”

I look back in the direction we came, and for once, my eyes begin to tear up. I have a horrible feeling that I’ll never be able to go home.