the way out

Pain.  Twenty-four-seven, jackhammer through your skull pain, the kind that makes it hard to walk, hard to get out of bed, hard to watch a movie, hard to do anything except curl up and beg for it to go away, to leave you behind forever and never come back.  Pain that never goes away, pain that haunts you every single hour and minute and second and makes every little thing into a struggle.

Pain like that does something to you.  The pain I feel is tiny compared to what many people feel, but it’s enough to make me crave escape, enough to make me starve for a way out – any way out.  A drug.  But I don’t mess with drugs.  I’ve had enough chemicals in my body, gone through enough treatments that I don’t trust any kind of drug – not even the ones the doctors prescribe, not even in exact doses.

My drug is art.

There is something about art that absolutely, completely takes my breath away every time I think of it, every time I experience it, every time I am a part of it – something that transcends any other feeling in this world, except maybe love (yes, that obsession, that infatuation, that feeling of a skipped heartbeat and a tingle on your lips and a warmth that only one person can ever give you).  And maybe I’m a hopeless romantic.  Maybe I’m crazy.  Maybe I’m a fool.

The truth is…all of the beautiful things in life are made by fools, by hopeless romantics, by all of the dreamers that are just a teeny, tiny bit crazy.

Just kidding.

Okay…that’s not fair.  I’m not entirely kidding.  What’s the line from La La Land?  “She told me/A bit of madness is key/To give us new colors to see/Who knows where it will lead us?/And that’s why they need us” – I live by that line.  It makes me smile.

But there’s a different, more cynical reason behind my art.

Art is my way out.

It’s easy, when you’re in pain, to search for any way to escape.  Physical pain gets to you eventually, messes with your mind, and sometimes you just need a way to break free of reality, to go somewhere that pain can’t chase you and twist your mind and play with your emotions.  Without an escape, you start to go crazy, little by little, bit by bit.  Art isn’t just a hobby for me – it’s the only way I can stay sane.

It’s easy to leave the rest of the world behind when you’re living in a different one, isn’t it?  When you’re writing a novel and you’re so immersed in it that it might as well be more real than reality?  When you are inside the characters’ heads, when you live inside the worlds, when you go on every adventure and fight through every trial as though it’s real?  And there, inside those pages, the pain can’t follow you.  Reality can’t follow you.  You’re the author, and you get to make the rules now.

Sometimes, it’s not enough.

Maybe that’s a big part of why I’m a computer science major.  Because sometimes these words on a screen – ink on paper, worlds in my head – they aren’t enough to give me the escape I need.  But virtual reality is getting better, isn’t it?  If I could do anything to advance it further, even the tiniest things – I would be helping the people who come after me, the ones who will live when virtual reality is good enough to offer an actual escape.

In any case, it’s time to go now.  Shanghai calls.  It’s time to step inside Tia’s head again, and make the pain go away.

Because here along the Huangpu, staring up at the buildings that shine with a million lights and the traffic that winds through the air and along the ground like an ocean of reds and whites and silvers and blues, with the river murmuring behind me and the boats glittering against the mirror surface of the water – here, the pain can’t touch me.  Maybe Remmy can, maybe Jon can, maybe Alexis can, but the pain can’t.  Those things are behind me, far away, distant.  Insignificant.  They don’t matter when I’m here, because they aren’t a part of me – not in this world.

Can you feel the wind?  It’s not harsh tonight – just enough to chill.  Enough to feel it.  The asphalt’s hard under my feet and the air tastes fresh, crisp.

There is city behind me and city in front of me and skyscrapers that touch the sky, stars that glint against the darkness like a million tiny lights.  People everywhere.  Music – so much music that it comes from all directions, clashes against itself like a war.  Everything is busy.  Crowded.  Always moving, constantly in motion, never still.

The world won’t wait for us.  So why am I still holding my breath?

It’s time to go.

the music of writing

I love to write novels, and I love to write music, and to me they’re one and the same.

Yes, I just said they’re one and the same.  Writing and music.

I’ve been told probably a million times that my writing style is different (whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, only time – and literary agents/publishing houses – will tell).  There’s a very specific and simple reason for that.  I’ve wanted to write a post about it for a while now, but kept forgetting until an interesting comment in my music class on the universality of rhythm in all art forms reminded me of it.  (Thanks, Professor Court!)

I write novels as though I’m writing music.

No, this isn’t some vague philosophical allegory or an attempt to sound sophisticated.  I mean that I actually, genuinely write my novels exactly as though I’m writing a piece of music.  When writing a song, you’ve got to write down the notes – the barebones skeleton of the music; you’ll add harmonies to give it more body, and dynamic markings to tell the musician where to take a breath, how to phrase the melodic lines, how loud and soft to play each note and where to play with the rhythm, and where not to.

Writing is exactly the same.  Punctuation is the same as breathing marks – tells you when to take a breath in your mind, where to pause, where to stop short and put a space between sentences or phrases, like musical rests.  Run-on sentences with less punctuation and shorter phrases will force the reader to keep reading – a way of increasing the tempo.  Harsher and more vivid word choice makes the story more intense, like a crescendo, whereas calmer word choices and longer sentences will work as a decrescendo.  The similarities go on and on – for every musical marking, there’s a writing analogue to match.

It’s a weird way of thinking about it, and maybe it makes my writing worse – I don’t know.  But I definitely think it’s an interesting concept, even if it wasn’t initially a conscious choice I made.  Just for fun, I’ll put a little example below, for anyone who wants to see if they can figure out the “musical markings” of my writing.

(Maybe, in my next post, I’ll actually notate it so you can see it more clearly – for fun!)


EXCERPT FROM “spider eyes”:

The basin is dirty.

Small details.  It’s always in the small details – the crack in the porcelain that rips down the center like a narrow canyon of black, the shaft of sunlight that filters through the tear in the curtain like a blade of gold, the faint rise of the glass where one pane overlaps another, hides the way the window was once rifted in two.  I’ve always had an eye for detail.  I always noticed the little things.  I always knew what time the man on the bike would come round, and when the sun would be red, and where the men of the hoods always like to come looking first, when they come on raids.

The basin is dirty.

Outside, the air seems to whine.  It’s thick with dust, the kind that gathers in folds and ripples and currents and streams through the air endlessly, little particles that would be invisible, except you can see the way they glint and glimmer in the sun.  I know the whining.  I know why it comes and when.  It’s the kind of whining that makes me hide behind the cracked basin, beneath the window curtain with the rip in it, beneath the uneven glass.


The basin is dirty.

I am motionless.

The air whines and it hurts my ears, pierces my head like someone’s slinging a blade through my skull, and the window pane seems to rattle – or it could be my imagination, it’s always my imagination, everything is my imagination until someone else notices it, too.  And when someone else notices, it becomes reality, because it’s not just in my mind anymore.  But until then – until then…

Am I crazy?  Maybe.  Valleja always said so.

But Valleja did not know what I am, or how I know the things I know.

The basin is dirty, and I’ve noticed.  But maybe it’s just my imagination.  My imagination that fills in the blanks and tells me the things other people won’t know till later, the things they’ll have to search and search to find, the things they laugh at me for telling them ahead of time.  The basin is dirty.  The people that live here are vulnerable.  Short on time, short on love, short on hands to work and backs to bend and souls to break.

I swallow.  My eyes are shut.  When I’m like this, I can feel them shut, the whisper of my eyelids against my skin.  I don’t know how anybody can live this way all their lives, so tangible, so solid.  It feels vulnerable.  Easier for them to hurt me, to sink something sharp and dangerous into my flesh or pour poison down my throat, or acid that burns me from the inside out until I’m nothing but a husk.  I can’t die easily, not usually, but like this, I am vulnerable.  I have to be scared, too.  It took me a long time to understand that.  A long time to adapt.

The air whines.  The basin is dirty.

I am made of flesh.


I know almost nobody reads this blog, but I still feel like I should apologize in advance for this post, because it definitely isn’t the snarky humor I usually go for in my nonfiction posts.  But I won’t apologize.  Here’s the thing…what’s a blog for, except to say all of the thoughts running around inside your head?  And I’ve got a lot of ugly thoughts that I need to put down on paper.

(Okay, cue snark.)

College really, really hasn’t started out the way I imagined it would, or the way I hoped it would, or – this one most of all – the way I planned it would.  The way I planned it, the way I dreamed of it…I was going to be at the top of my class in computer science with a perfect 4.0 GPA (yes, I know it’s hard, no, I don’t care – I’ll work as hard as I have to, to make it happen), I was going to participate in a whole slew of clubs to add to my resume, I was going to land an internship, and I was going to still pursue my many other extracurricular/professional interests on the side, at the same time.

Well…I didn’t completely fail.

I do have a 4.0 GPA, technically.  But I’ve also got three incompletes from last quarter – postponed finals that still need to be taken.  So that GPA is going to plunge miserably – and it’s going to plunge fast.  I’m now a paid blogger, but it isn’t exactly the CS internship I’d dreamed of, even if it does help pad my resume for my query letters.  I do still write music and novels, avidly so (novel #12 currently in the works) – despite everything.  Clubs, though?  And being at the top of the class?

Ha.  I wish.

My migraines have gotten worse.  Worse.  That’s hard for me to say, hard to admit even to myself, especially knowing how last quarter went.  It’s scary, wondering what this quarter will be like.

The thing about migraines…it feels as though trying to think, trying to do anything, is like trying to walk with weights on your legs.  It’s a struggle, every day, all the time, every single hour and minute and second, and it’s painful.  Especially when it’s twenty-four-seven, like mine.  And there’s so many side effects besides the pain – loss of vision, tremors so bad I can’t write, dizziness and nausea and all sorts of other, fun things.  And it’s holding me back.  Keeping me from doing what I need to do if I’m going to be where I need to be to chase all of my dreams and have even the smallest shot at making them come true.

I’ve had these dreams since I was tiny.  Age seven?  Four?  Five?  Somewhere in that time span.  I’m not going to let them die like this.  Life can throw everything it likes at me, and I’m still going to kick back, and keep fighting.  I try to hide the pain from everybody, I try to be the girl that always smiles…and it’s hard sometimes.  But I’ll keep doing it anyway, no matter how many failed treatments and nasty side effects the doctors put me through, no matter how many times the people I trust end up stabbing me in the back.

I’m angry.  I’m frustrated.  But life is unfair, and anger and frustration is part of what you get – the price of happiness.  And in the end, as long as I can come out of this alive and kicking, it’ll all be worth it.  It’ll all be okay.

Yeah, I don’t know exactly what I’m doing with this post.  So I’ll just put this gif here instead of trying for some deep concluding paragraph, because the reality is that I just feel very alone and very fucked over and very much in pain, and there isn’t anything deep about that.  All that exists is being kicked in the teeth over and over by life, and kicking back, and making it out alive somehow – and that’s what I say when I’m not feeling cynical.

That’s all for today.

Oh, and just as a bonus,

because I’m honestly angry enough at the pain right now that I’m in one of those let me just step forward, take over the world, and show everybody who’s boss kind of moods.

Here’s to 2018!

Happy New Year’s Eve!!!

there are a few things i want to say. i know most people won’t read all of this, but sometimes it helps just to get it out, you know?

2017 has been probably the worst year of my life (for medical reasons i won’t go into). or, well…most of it was pretty great. it’s just about four months of it were absolutely hard.

but i like to be positive. even though it may not have seemed like it last october, i’m actually an optimist.

2017 has been an amazing year.

in the space of twelve months, i will have written five full-length novels and finished writing a thirteen-song album of music. i’ve found a home at UCLA and an amazing family there that makes me feel so incredibly loved and appreciated. my dad is writing a book based on a research paper on relativistic electromagnetism – which i did the calculations for when i was fourteen.

basically, it’s been pretty cool, and i’m so, so incredibly grateful and lucky and blessed.

i have a few specific shoutouts, of course. first to Jenn Han for being the best, BEST roommate i could ever ask for. you’re such an angel, and you’re so strong, and honestly you and your sister both inspire me so much every day. you’ve known hard times and you still work past all of it to be the amazing human you are, and i think that’s beautiful.

second to Ameya Tilaye for being an absolutely incredible friend. chasing our dreams together has been such a blessing. the anecdotes and stories you write of us are so profound and lovely…i never get tired of reading them. i’ll always be grateful for having a friend that has not only the STEM side, but also the artistic, crazy, philosophical side (crazy enough to put up with me!).

third to Chanel Young for being that one sarcastic friend that always brightens my mood. i swear to God i WILL be more annoying than you next quarter, though. don’t even try and beat me, ’cause you’re going downnnn (winks).

to Diego Bustamante for being my BFF, Amy Zhao for being straight up awesome, Hirday Gupta for being such a supportive friend and being an inspiration to me, Arnav Garg for encouraging me to chase my dreams, Athena Sung-Miller for being my super annoying twin, and all of my other friends at UCLA who got me through my first quarter of college. you guys mean the absolute world to me. so thank you.

(i’m sorry if you’re not mentioned, i swear i still love you.)

and here’s my new year’s resolution: to chase my dreams even more passionately than before, fight harder than before, and make the people around me smile more.

Excerpt from My Newest Novel

So I’ve been working on a lot of stuff lately (…computer science projects and calculus homework…thanks college) – including a lot of music (I GOT A KEYBOARD FOR MY ROOM, GUYS!!!), which I’ll hopefully be posting on here soon.

Aside from that, I’m working on a new short story anthology with little snapshots into different parts of my universes…gearing up to enter them in competitions, because bragging rights and query letters – amiright?

In light of all that, I’ve sort of been…er, slacking…on my novels (giving myself a well-deserved break, okay?  Don’t give me that look).  But I’m back at it again, and I really like the opening lines for my newest manuscript, MARGINS FROM A NOTEBOOK, so I thought I’d share!  Have a peek!


The trick to not being found is to not hide.

Tia Ling doesn’t hide.  She doesn’t run, either.  She walks, every step measured, every step careful.  Smoke curls from her lips and spirals into the air and veils the stars like a curtain thrown across a window, gauzy, wafting in the wind, and she’s out in the open, uncovered.

The smell of cigarettes is intoxicating.  So is the touch of sandpaper-rough hands against lotion-softened cheeks.  So is the smell of sweat and soil mingling with rose hip perfume, the heat of asphalt in the summertime, the burn of winter frost, the bite of the wind, the blinding claws of lightning flashing from the sky.  So is the taste of forbiddenness, of rebellion, of disobedience.  Cigarettes.  Intoxicating.  Just as bad as vodka.  Heavy, thick, cloying…cigarette smoke reaches at your throat and grips your vocal chords with fingers like steel, makes your breath freeze in place, fills you with the sweet poison of tobacco.  Makes it hard to swallow.  Cigarettes are intoxicating – like love.

And like love, cigarettes begin with the lips.  Shards of dreams, shreds of reality rolled in bits of paper, pinched between the teeth.  Inhale, feel the taste; exhale, billowing smoke into the air.  It clings to everything – the wallpaper, the furniture, your throat, your lungs, your heart, your brain.  Like love, cigarette smoke is all-encompassing, swallowing you whole.

Tia’s never smoked before, but she lives in a world that does, and the stuff’s everywhere – vapors and fumes rising towards the sky in rivers of silver, clouding between the buildings and into the gray of the gutters.  The people here, the riffraff, blend into the smoke like ghosts, gaunt and skeletal.  They’re quiet, mostly.  They watch her with big eyes – the kind that make you feel as though you’ve been put under the lense of a microscope and pinned there overtime.  Like dozens of oversized magnifying glasses all watching her at once.

Skeletons walking in a city of light.

She breathes out, and in, and her throat rattles with a cough.  Harsh.  Cigarette smoke is harsh.  She likes it – the tang, the bitterness, the bite.  It’s nostalgic, somehow.  Romantic.  Like black-and-white movies from three hundred years ago.  Tia Ling has never smoked a cigarette before a month ago, but she’s never loved before, either.  All she’s ever known is the world in front of her eyes, like a papier mâché tower in a shop window.

It’s pretty.

She stops in the light of the cosmetics shop and watches her reflection blink in the mirror, watches the way the neon lights paint one half of her face blue and the other half bright pink.  The cigarette sits exactly in the middle of her mouth, at the place where her top lip crooks into a peak and her bottom lip pushes out into a pout.  She pinches it in her fingers, pulls it out, and it glows gently in the light as she breathes out, long, slow, easy.  Lazy.

There’s music.  There’s always music here, the kind that starts in the ground and vibrates up through your body and into your chest, flickers in time with the bright neons of the characters that dance against the storefront, in time with the rippling flags that read 欢迎关岭 three times on every side.  A girl brushes past her, bumps her shoulder, disappears inside the cosmetics shop, blue headphones balanced around her neck.

Tia flicks her eyes to the girl, watches the sway of her hips for a long moment, and then she turns back to her reflection again, presses the end of the cigarette to her lips.  She runs her hands across her body and swings her hips, fingers sliding against the dips and valleys of her skin.  It’d be easy, she tells herself for the millionth time, so easy.  She could just…and maybe her family wouldn’t be torn apart like this.  Maybe, with a little bit of extra money, with a little bit of help, maybe all of it would be okay.  Maybe she could fix them.  Fix everything.

Her mother told her not to.

conglomerate 3.2

There is a place in the shifting gold of the desert where skulls tower high like pyres, where sand whispers like a billion snakes slipping across stone, where the sun burns so hot in the sky it is impossible to look at.  There is a place where fires rise at night and fall away again by dawn, where the cave is a place of birth and the darkness is a world of light.  There is a place where the world has been turned upside down and set on its head, and that is the place where we stand, the world we have conquered – our kingdom.  Our kingdom, and none shall take it from us.

Noonya knows this.  Noonya knows, because she is one of us, and she knows all that we know.

Ai, the one called Clepsis murmurs, and the sound is soft like water, like the whisper of rain.  She turns, and her eyes are bright emerald and huge, and her lips seem to smile.  Ai, Noonya, me runye.

You do not know our language, but I know yours.  She tells us it is time to go.

I know, I tell her.  I know.  It is the time of birth.  If we are late, the fires will not be happy.

We will not be late.

The first thing I notice is the water.  It’s almost wherever I look.  I’d hardly seen any in the desert, but here, underground, it’s everywhere, a huge lake like a mirror that reflects my face perfectly.  It’s clear, but it goes down and down and down so far that I can’t tell where the bottom is, or if a bottom even exists.  It’s still, too, except when someone touches it, and then it ripples, all at once, starts at one point and spreads all the way to the edges.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen something so pretty before.  But it’s pretty in an eerie way.  Eerie – I’m not sure I like it.

“Don’t you think it’s nice?”

I look over at him, then back.  Nod slowly.  “I guess…that isn’t quite the word I’d use for it.”

There are torches at the edge of the water.  Fire.  It plays tricks on my eyes, makes me think there’s places where the water is ripped at the edges, almost.  Burning.  There are torches in the middle of the water, too, and they flicker like candles flames, far out, orange against the black glassiness of the liquid.

“We take boats out on the water, sometimes,” Jared says.  “You ever been on a boat?”

I shake my head.

“No shit,” he says.  “There isn’t much water to sail on, aboveground, anyway.”  He dips his chin towards the water.  “I didn’t want to show you the lake, anyway.  The lake doesn’t matter.  But if you take a boat and follow the lake around, sail to the opposite edge, you won’t find more land.  You know what you’d find?”

I raise my eyes from the water, stare at him.  He cocks his head at me, proud.

I cross my arms slowly.  “I don’t know,” I say.  “A castle?  A fairy tale land with houses made of candy?  A haunted mansion?”

“A portal to another universe,” he says, with a wink.

I roll my eyes.  “Bullshit.”

“Bullshit,” he agrees.  “But not quite complete bullshit.  You’d find caves, lots and lots of caves, not as big as this one but…labyrinths.  Mazes of them.  No idea how far they go, but they’re all full of water.  You just can’t reach them from above.  This is the only way into them, that I know.  If you sail there, you’ve got to take lots of torches with you, to be sure.  Maybe, way far out, away from our torches, the eena have got their lair nested in one of these caves.”

“No shit?”

He looks at me, throws his head back, laughs.  “Unlikely.  I mean, the world is fucked up.  They could be down here somewhere.  But we’ve been here tens of hundreds of years, and never found any of them.  If they’re here, they’re well hidden.  And they must be pretty fucking scared of our torches, or they would’ve mobbed us by now and eaten all of our souls alive, and this whole goddamn place would be one huge cemetery.  Or a city made of impostors – either way.”

“A city of impostors,” I say, slowly.  “D’you think something like that could actually exist?”

He shrugs one shoulder, lifts it up and down.  “It’s got to, Jo.  There’s too many eena out there for it not to.  There’s a shit ton of impostors, and we know the eena like to stick together – not exactly lone wolves.  So there must be someplace where a bunch of them are hiding out.  We just don’t know where.  We haven’t been looking, really.  We mostly just scout around and make sure they aren’t too close for comfort, fend off the ones that get too close to our flames.”

“But you’re just buying time.”

“Buying time is all we need to do.  If we can buy time indefinitely, we’ve got it made.”  He sighs, exhales slowly, turns so I can see the fires flickering in his eyes.  “We aren’t the only big junker city out there, Jo.  That’s the other thing.  We’ve got other fuckers working with us.  We all cover our own territory, eventually we press the eena mostly into hiding.  Cage them and corner them well enough, and someday we will be able to stop buying time, and start killing the little fuckers off for good.”

I stare.  I’m not sure I’ve heard half of what he’s just said.  I think I got caught up at we aren’t the only big junker city out there, Jo.

We aren’t the only big junker city out there, Jo.

“We aren’t the only big junker city?”

He shrugs again, and it seems even more offhanded this time, casual, like what he’s about to say hardly matters at all.  “No.  I mean, we can’t be.  I’ve seen junkers once in a while that come to this city, sneak around, and they don’t have any of the marks I recognize.  They stay a couple days and they’re gone.  Usually stay in the whorehouses.  It’s always a good place for strange men.  Nobody bothers to search a whorehouse.  Too hard to know what you see, when all you can see is a lot of sex and not many faces.”

“And these junkers are from another city.”

He frowns.  “Look…I can’t answer all your questions for certain.  But that’s my theory.  What’re the chances we’re the only ones?  It’s a big motherfucker of a universe.”

“Oh,” I say.  Oh.  I feel like a dumbass, like I should’ve guessed that already.  But it didn’t cross my mind.  I’d never really wondered about it.  All I’d ever thought of – all I’d ever had to think of – was the little narrow world I existed in.  My town, the junkers that raided it, my family and tomorrow’s food and where I’d get money to buy tomorrow’s food.  Nothing beyond that ever mattered, not until now.  Until now, living in a bubble had worked.

Jared smiles, but it’s a smile that’s mixed with a frown.  “You never thought.”

It’s a statement more than a question, but I answer it anyway.  “No,” I say, and I dip my head because I’m actually ashamed.  “I never thought.”

He turns away, kicks at the ground.  “Well,” he says, “it’s never too late to start.”

conglomerate 3.1

“You know,” I say to Jared as we walk, side by side, Thalay so far ahead of us that I can’t see her anymore, “I thought of something.”

He looks at me, eyebrows raised.  “Yeah?”

I nod.  “Yeah.  You know the day the undead ambushed us?  When the one was copying you, being an impostor.  Mariah told us guns wouldn’t work on the undead, but you pulled your gun out and shot it through the head and it…it just dissolved.  Like that.  Into a pool of…well, I don’t know.  Black ink, or some strange shit.  What was that?  If that’s what happens, why don’t we use guns all the time?”

He shakes his head, sighing.  “I was sort of hoping you wouldn’t bring that up.”

I laugh, cocking my head at him.  “No?  Why?  Because it was creepy seeing the thing posing as you?”

“No…well, yeah, that’s sort of creepy, but you get used to seeing that kind of thing out here, you know?  As long as the right version of you – the impostor – is the one that your friends turn on, and they don’t mix you up, it’s all good.  But the thing is more that…I screwed up that day.  With the gun.  You aren’t supposed to shoot them with the gun, because normal bullets don’t hurt them that much.  It can interrupt their camouflage, sure, but once they reform, they’re stronger than before.  Like they feed off of it.”

“But…wouldn’t it hurt?”

He laughs.  “Think of them as masochists, Jo.  They get stronger when they go through pain, I guess.  Fire’s the only thing that can hurt them but not make them stronger, but it doesn’t seem to weaken them much, either.  All the shit floating around about how to kill them is just speculation.  Guesswork.  Nobody actually knows any of the answers, and I doubt anybody will know any of the answers anytime soon.”

I raise my eyebrows.  “That sounds optimistic.”

“Hell yes,” he says, elbowing me teasingly.  “Also, I’m sorry about being so snappy that day.  I was kinda tense.”

“We all were.  And most of us didn’t have to kill an impostor that looked exactly like us,” I shrug.  It’s true – if I were in the same position, I don’t know if I’d have been able to put a bullet – or a fire-tipped staff – through the thing’s head.  I think I’d be too scared.  Creeped out.  Terrified.  Those things make my skin want to crawl right off my body.  It makes me shudder, just thinking about it.

We pass a stand of fresh fruit – how the hell they get that out here, in the desert, I’ve got absolutely no idea – and then we’re filing into a line of at least three dozen other junkers.  When I peer ahead, I think I can see Thalay’s spiky, black-and-white hair peeking up ahead of us.  I glance at Jared.  He’s noticed, too.  He calls her name, but she doesn’t move, doesn’t turn to look at us.  She just splits off into a smaller line ahead, and disappears from view.  Jared snorts, rolling his eyes.  “She’s sore,” he mutters to me, out the corner of his mouth.  “She’s always sore.  She gets sore easy.”

“I figured,” I mutter back, without looking at him, still craning my neck to try and catch a glimpse of Thalay.  “She can be a -”

“A bitch, yeah.”  We inch ahead in the line, and a few more junkers ahead of us split off.  “So…anyway, this is the garay.  Lots of security.  There has to be, because if the eena ever get past this point, we’re done for.  That’s why they have the guards checking everybody one by one.  Making sure no undead slip past as impostors.”  He winks at me.  “Remember, always look them in the eyes.  And don’t make your eyes look all funny, or they might think you’re undead and kill you.”

“Joke’s on you,” I grin at him.  “If I’m undead, nothing can kill me.”

“That we know of.”

That we know of is good enough for me.  Hell of a lot better than it is for humans.”  We reach the split in the lines and take the rightmost fork, nodding at the guard, waiting until he lets us through.  “I mean, there are millions of ways humans can die, right?  Maybe billions.”

“Billions,” Jared says.  “It’s got to be billions.”

He takes my hand, and pulls me forward alongside him, away from the guards.  There’s a place ahead of us, cordoned off by a wall of reddish rock, that opens up like a maw in between the buildings of the city, black and gaping.  A ramp leads down into it, sloping unevenly where it’s been cut away, and Jared lets me go slowly, because I’m clumsy and my feet keep slipping in the dust.  After a minute or so, he stops me, points ahead of us.

I stare.  A huge cave has opened out in front of us, burrowing tens of feet down from where we stand, the ceiling a good five feet above our heads.  When I look back, I realize the slope of the ramp is harsher than I’d realized – we’re already maybe twenty feet below ground.  At intervals around the cave, huge pillars of rock stretch up to the ceiling, and there’s a honeycomb of metal reinforcements in case the rock doesn’t hold up.  It’s loud, every single sound echoing like a cacophony, every single voice as if they’re shouting at the top of their lungs.  It’s beautiful in a strange way, too, lit by hundreds and hundreds of fire torches that cast dancing shadows on the walls, people and stalls and animals larger than life.

“So yeah, this is the underground,” Jared says, walking again.  He takes the slope easily, waits for me every few paces so I can catch up, as if he’s done this a million times before.  I know I’m going slow, but it’s not just because I’m clumsy anymore, or because my feet are slipping beneath me.  It’s because I’m staring at it all, still trying to take it in, still trying to see how big this place is.

I stop, turning around in a full circle, my mouth open.  “This is amazing,” I say, looking at Jared.

He grins.  “It is,” he says.  “But it’s not the best part.  Come on – you’ve got to see this, you’re going to love it!”

And then he starts running down the slope, and it’s all I can do to keep up without falling flat on my face.

conglomerate 3.0

The council’s that night.  We aren’t allowed to go, of course – only Mariah goes.  Thalay tells me that there are hundreds of junker groups in the city, using this place as their permanent base, their only real home.  We couldn’t fit them all in that room, no matter how big it is, no matter how tight they pack it.  Only the speakers.  One for each group.  That means that everybody in our group already had a mini-council, fought it out and decided on what Mariah was gonna say to the big heads, and without too much bloodshed, too.

(I’m kidding.  They didn’t shed blood, not really.  There were a couple black eyes, though, and little cuts and nicks where people tried using fingernails as weapons.)

Since we aren’t allowed in the council, Thalay has another plan for the night.

“The underground city,” she says, grinning at me.  “Everybody needs to go underground at least once.  It’s majestic.  I think you’ll like it.”

“Well, I think I’ll hate it,” I tell her, shaking my head.

“You little fucker.”

“I’m not kidding.”  I look at her, my arms crossed tight across my chest, holding her gaze levelly.  “I’m scared of the underground.  I always feel like it’s all gonna cave on me, you know?  That I’ll end up stuck down there forever.  No sunlight ever again.”  I’m hoping she’ll take pity on me and not take me down there – but no luck, of course.  My initiation must go on as planned.  She doesn’t take pity on me – just frowns at me instead.  Rolls her eyes.


“I know you’re scared of it,” she says, biting her lip.  “That’s why I called you a little fucker, ‘cause it’s true.  A real junker isn’t scared of it.  A real junker isn’t scared of much, except the real dangers.”

“Like what?  That your guy will cheat on you with another girl?”

Thalay laughs – a short, bitter laugh.  “Hell, no,” she says.  “Like the undead.  Stuff that can actually hurt you, kill you, fuck with your life.”

“I think if your guy cheated on you, it’d fuck with your life a lot,” I murmur under my breath.  She hears me, but doesn’t say anything.  Doesn’t rise to the bait.  I can’t shake the feeling that she’s still sore over what happened earlier, about pouring her life story to me.  Maybe she didn’t mean to tell me anything that personal, not yet.  Maybe I wasn’t supposed to know.  Maybe I pushed too far.

She just grabs her leather jacket – she’d taken it off – and walks out past me, through the door, out into the heat.  It’s sunset, and the sun is barely riding the horizon, but it’s still hot.  It’ll be hot even at three a.m.  We never use jackets for warmth.  Only for protection.

I wait for a second.  Then I follow her.

It’s funny, walking around and not being stared at.  I think it’s because of the tattoo.  Now that I’m marked, I’m no longer an outsider, no longer worthy of being stared at.  I’m just another junker girl wandering around the city at sunset with a friend.  It almost feels normal, like home, as if this could be me and Nimma, before she and her family moved.  She used to be my best friend, way back when.

I stay several paces behind Thalay the whole time, wary.  She doesn’t look back once, or say anything to me.  Probably for the best.  Honest, I’m not sure I’d want to talk to her right now, not when she’s in a dark mood like this.

We’re passing a stall selling guns when I hear a boy behind me call my name.  I’m not sure he means me, at first, because he says it funny – Zoanneh, almost – but after a moment he’s at my elbow, jogging to catch me.  “Joanna,” he says again, and this time it sounds closer to normal.  He doesn’t look out of breath, but a slick sheen of sweat covers his skin, plastering the fabric of his tank top to his body.

I recognize him.  He’s the one who was being copied by the undead, the day they gave me my staff and my gun.  The one who first told me about the impostors.

“I’m Jared,” he says after a second.  I can feel him watching me.  Staring.

“Nice to meet you, Jared,” I say.  It sounds plastic.  Artificial.  Like I’m saying it just to be polite, which maybe I am.

“Where are you going?”

I shrug.  “Underground.  Thalay insisted on taking me.  I don’t like underground much, though.”

He raises his eyebrows, glancing at Thalay.  When I look, she’s staring back at us, glaring.  He smirks, turns back to me.  “Thalay can be a bitch,” he says, out the corner of his mouth.  “You’ll learn that with time.  Anyways, if you’re scared of the underground, do you want me to come along?  I’ve got nothing to do tonight.”

Thalay’s still glaring at us.  She wants me to say no, I can tell, but I just shrug and nod.  “That’d be great,” I say, smiling at him.

He nods, crosses his arms, matches my stride.  “Got any questions?”

I look at him funny.  “What?”

“Questions.  You know, like when you ask -”

“No, I know.”  I shrug.  “Umm, er…well…why does everybody here talk normal so much?  Like…I’d thought they’d all be talking junker.  I mean, this is a junker city – the junker city -”


I stare.  “What?”

Jared grins at me.  “It’s because of you, and people like you.  You didn’t think you were the only new recruit, did you?  We don’t usually recruit, but we’ve been doing it tons lately.  Undead and all that, we needed more people.  And most of them don’t know junker.  Most of them are like you.”

I widen my eyes.  There are more like me?  I mean…I knew Thalay was like me, from what she told me earlier.  Saved the same way I was.  But I guess I never really thought about the fact that of course we aren’t special.  We aren’t the only ones.  There’ve got to be tons of others here, kids like us who got rescued when the undead came looking.  I swallow.

Jared shakes his head at me, bemused.  “Didn’t think it through, did you?  Yeah, we used to do everything in junker.  The council’s in junker still.  But we couldn’t do everyday stuff in junker, not if we wanted the recruits to understand enough to keep their asses alive.”

I nod numbly.  He’s right, of course.  Duh.

He laughs.  “Don’t kick yourself too much, Joanna.  Our group doesn’t recruit, not much.  That’s probably why you didn’t realize.  You and Thalay are the only ones.  I was born into the group.  I think that’s why she doesn’t like you much, because she used to be the special one, you know?  But she isn’t anymore.  ‘Cause you came along, and now there’s two of you.  And…well, she’s Thalay, so she doesn’t like anybody that much, really.”

Thalay glares at us again.  I can’t help but think she’s been eavesdropping the whole damn time.  “Fuck off,” she says, and lengthens her stride.  “You two can find your way underground alone.  Have fun making out.”

Jared shakes his head at her.  “I know the way better than you do, dumbass,” he shouts to her back.  For a moment we stand there, watching her go.

Then he turns to me.  “Come on,” he says, and pulls me along by the hand.

Music (At Last!)

NEWS FLASH – I’m a musician!  Not just a writer!  (And I dance, too, if hips-don’t-lie-Shakira-dancing counts as dancing.)

I’m actually doing this mostly because I’ve had multiple requests to feature my music on this blog.  Which I totally understand – writing is good and all, but variety is nice, especially for someone who has pretty varied interests.  (Next up – 10 reasons computer science is hateful, and 10 reasons computer science is the best thing since sliced bread!)

(Okay…yes.  I’ll admit that this can get confusing.  Trying to be a computer science major, aspiring businesswoman and entrepreneur, musician, and writer all at once is a little bit of a long shot.  But a girl can still dream!)

Anyway.  I don’t have professional recordings or fancy music videos, but I do have a few little samples.  It’s not much, but I’m working on more, I promise.  And these are just drafts…so I will get better.

Here goes nothing!  For your listening and pleasure: