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.

Another Break in the Schedule –

I FINISHED MY EIGHTH NOVEL!!

Sorry. I know, I shouldn't write in all caps. I'm just super excited, especially because I know I think the perfect agent for it is (cough cough Erin Harris of Folio Lit cough cough). No idea if she'll take it, of course. But a girl can always dream!

Actually, if any of you guys have an opinion on that, please chip in. My writing style – as I found out today – is this close to one of her favorite books (as in, so close that when I read the prologue to my boyfriend he thought it was my writing at first)…and it's the same genre, so she must like the genre…and on a past MS of mine that she rejected, Erin wrote me to tell me she thought I was a "real talent," etc. So she must like something about my writing, right?

I mean…for this manuscript especially, she's basically my dream agent. I know I'll probably be disappointed, but still. I can't help but think she'd be absolutely perfect for this book.

Ciao for now! Back to HBN soon (but first, let me get sucked into the whirlpool that is Pitch Wars!)…

Human By Night: burning sands 1.1

When my momma was young and I was younger, I used to try and go out into the desert. She always told me no, but did I care? Of course not. I hardly gave a shit. I was an explorer at heart. An adventurer. I wanted to see the big wide world, no matter the cost. I wanted to take it in with my own eyes, even if it meant getting myself killed.

That was before I became a homebody, of course. Before I realized my momma was an imbecile, my little sister was too young to help, and there was a baby on the way. That was when I buckled down, realized that if nobody else was gonna be responsible, I had to be. I accepted it. Didn't even ask who the baby’s daddy was, or why Momma once told us she didn't know.

If that wasn't enough to stop me from wanting to go into the desert and see the big wide world with my own eyes, this is more than enough to make me wish I'd never once set eyes on sand in my life.

The bike bucks beneath me and the man behind me curses in a low, deep voice. “Joanna?” he says, in a voice that sounds thick, foreign, so heavily accented it takes me a moment to recognize my own name.

“That's me,” I say.

“Here.”

Without moving his head, he reaches back with one arm and grabs something big from behind him. I know it's heavy from the way his muscles bulge, and I tense for a moment – is he going to attack me? Knock me out? But instead he just hands it to me, grip pointing towards the bike handles in front of me.

I close my fingers around it, staring. It's a gun. A big one, too. It feels heavy in my hands.

“You'll need something to defend yourself,” the man says.

I swallow. “Thanks.” But aren't we… why’s he giving me this now? We're riding away from whatever caused us to abandon camp, aren't we?

My stomach tenses into a tight, anxious coil. Again, that feeling of being helplessly blind, left in the dark, not knowing what we're doing or why we're doing it. I swallow against it.

“When we stop the bike, grab a belt off the back,” the man instructs me, his voice low. “Extra cartridges in the black one looped over the back. Grab a pack, too. Explosives.”

I raise my eyebrows. Cartridges? Explosives? They're trusting me with weapons now?

Weapons. Weapons mean I could –

“Don’t even think about trying to run,” adds the man. “Without us you'd die in the blink of an eye, and nobody’d even miss you.”

Shit. Well, there goes that plan.

He could be bluffing. But somethin’ tells me he’s probably right.

And then, before I have a chance to think of anything else, the bike is jolting to an ugly, guttural stop, and we're in the middle of another town – a city of low-lying houses of heavy glass and worn stone – and around me, the alleys and the streets are so filled with darkness that it's almost suffocating. I put the helmet over my head and suck in a breath. It tastes metallic. Stuffy. But it's better than being unshielded from the sand, vulnerable to whatever else is out there. I sling the belt across my body, shoulder to hip, and the pack of explosives on my back.

Now I look more like a junker.

My clothes are still soft, though, and bright beneath my cartridge belt, and my pants rumple awkwardly. They're a tough khaki that slumps lazily at the waist, pools above the tops of my boots. I'm hefting the gun when the man – Marcus, I think – suddenly grabs it from me and slings a couple more belts across me, like an X, and attaches the gun to my back. “You aren't gonna use the gun, not right now,” he mutters. “You gonna use this.”

He slaps a long stick into my hands. It's got bulbs at either end, and it's sort of tan colored. I stare at it awkwardly. A stick? Is it just a stick?

My fingers slip against something. A button, I think. I press it, on instinct.

The ends flare. Marcus recoils, eyes wary.

So that's how it works.

“Fire works well on the undead,” Mariah hisses to me. She's materialized next to me somehow. I don't know how she managed to navigate through all the bikes without bumping into one, or tripping over herself. “That's what your staff is for.”

When I look, she's holding one, too, but longer, and the ends are flared more, almost like oversized flames. She flicks a switch along the handle and it sparks longer, louder, and brighter than mine. I blink, and spots dance across my eyes.

Then she reaches over to my staff, holds the button down for a good five seconds. When she moves her hand away, the ends don't stop glowing or sparking. I spin the staff experimentally in my hands, trailing sparks through the air. Even though the ends are a good three feet from my face to either side, I can feel their heat pressing against my skin, like a cloud of almost-oppressive warmth.

I look up – and that's when it happens.

Fireflies. That's what they look like, pairs of oversized fireflies blinking into existence all around me, one after another after another. And as soon as they do –

One of the women at the edge lets out a shriek, dropping her staff. Suddenly she's tangled with another body, a body darker than hers that doesn't glint in the firelight, and the lights are coming together, converging on her –

There's another shriek, but this one is unearthly, inhuman, and the dark creature is scurrying away, one spindly arm shielding its eyes.

“Laila!”

A man’s voice. Maybe her lover. Do junkers have room for love in their hearts? I always heard they only cared about loot.

Then, suddenly, one of them is next to me.

I don't know how it got there, how it managed to get there so silently – maybe it and Mariah share the same genes, who the hell knows? – but I'm swinging my staff in a wide arc, scared shitless, and my heart is pounding and the others are converging on me and –

I stop. It's not undead. It's one of us.

One of our younger ones, too. A young man, his eyes glinting in the dark. He looks up at me, his pupils dilated – with fear, probably – and I nearly drop my staff. “Oh,” and I back up, biting my lip. My heart isn't pounding so hard anymore.

Then someone says, “Idiot,” and a boy – a boy who looks exactly like the boy on the ground in front of me – pulls out a gun and shoots the helpless one straight through the head.

The air seems to sizzle. The boy on the ground gives a strange shriek and withers suddenly into a mess of muscle and bone and blood. After a few seconds, he's nothing but a small pool of sticky black liquid. I'm pretty sure normal people would leave a body behind –

“The undead are impostors,” the dead boy’s lookalike says to me.

Impostors.

“They imitate real people.”

I raise my eyes to him slowly. “Then how do you know which one to kill?”

He laughs. “You don't, always.”

I laugh a humorless, shaky laugh. “Shit.”

He opens his mouth to say something, but Mariah speaks instead. “The eena are around us,” she says softly. “Closer than we thought. We must take care.”

I glance back at the boy. “Eena?”

He nods. “It's the junker word for zombies.”

Oh. Junker word. I remember how Momma always told me junkers talk different than we do. I have a feeling I'm beginning to get a faint idea of exactly why she said that. Eena. I file it away into my mind. Eena. Undead. Zombies. All the same thing.

Then she makes a sudden, strange clicking noise.

There's no doubt in my mind that what she means is, run.

A Break from Our Scheduled Programming…

Hello everybody! No, this is not a Human By Night update or even an author's note about it – this is about the Versatile Blogger award! BlogHollyBlog left a lovely comment nominating me for the Versatile Blogger award, so, in turn, I'm keeping the chain going! Below are the rules – if you're a fellow blogger, be sure to keep the chain going!

THE RULES
1. Thank the person who nominated you.
2. Share 7 facts about yourself.
3. Nominate 10 other bloggers of your choice.
4. Link your nominees and let them know of your nomination.

 
7 Alethea Factoids
1. My boyfriend Kylan isn't just my best friend, but also my editor for all of my writing, and he makes me feel like the luckiest girl in the world! So if you read any of my stuff, chances are he's gone over it already to critique the writing style, characters, plot, and practically everything that goes into creating my stories/novels.
2. I'm a composer – not just English composition, but music as well! Plus I love to choreograph dances – you could say creativity is my thing.
3. I have lots of dreams, but my biggest are to be a successful novelist, a film music composer, and an entrepreneur.
4. Like BlogHollyBlog, who nominated me, I’ve been to China and climbed the Great Wall. I also want to visit Italy, Spain, Brazil, and Greece (I've taught myself some Greek), and I've been to London and Paris…
5. I'm a huge Apple fan. Sorry, Samsung!
6. I love making friends and I'm super outgoing, which is probably why people forget I'm actually a nerd. And I care about fashion. But I'm a computer science/electrical engineering major at UCLA (class of 2021, go Bruins!!), so geek by definition.
7. I'm interested in practically everything. Except maybe athletics (unless you count the Olympics).

… AND THE NOMINEES ARE…
1.BlogHollyBlog
2.Hope, The Reader Addict
3.Sharon Gerdes, The Late Bloomer
4.Elsie Elmore
5.Kathy Palm, Finding Faeries
6.Austin L. Wiggins, Writings by Ender
7.Elan Mudrow
8.Rebecca Klay
9.Julian Barr, The Tyro's Stylus
10.Douglas William Thurstan Smith

That's all, folks! Bloggers, go spread some love and nominate your own ten favorite bloggers!

Human By Night: burning sands 1.0

I wake to the crackle of a fire and the smell of burnt flesh.

It's not the best way to wake up. The first thought that jumps into my head is that I'm gonna burn up and die, right here and right now. The second thought is that at least the fuckers will die with me, too. The third thought is that hey… nobody’s screaming, so maybe we aren't all dying, after all. What a pity.

I blink my eyes open. The first thing I see is a girl's face, narrow and delicate like a pixie, her hair cut short, half black and half white. She grins when I try sitting up and pushes me back down roughly, her hands on my shoulders. Behind her, oversized bikes gleam in the dimness, fire dancing like tongues of light against their shiny shells.

“We aren't supposed to be up, silly,” she hisses. “So you gotta keep quiet and stop moving around. Every time you move it's like an elephant crashing through a forest of porcelain.”

I blink again. I don't recognize her face, but I recognize her voice. Thalay.

“We stopped to set up camp,” Thalay continues, her teeth shining yellow when she smiles. She's got a plain metal amulet around her neck, and dark rings of black lining her eyes. “I'm supposed to teach you the ways tomorrow, but I kinda don't want to. Would you maybe tell them that I did it anyway?”

I raise my eyebrows. “Is it stuff I need to know?”

She narrows her eyes at me. “Shhh! You've got to whisper, or Mariah will wake up.” She glances over at the blonde woman with the braids who'd driven me here. “And yeah, it’s stuff you need to know. If you wanna stay alive.”

“Then no,” I say, lying back down to go to sleep.

She rolls her eyes. “Can we do it tonight instead of tomorrow?”

“Why?”

“‘Cause they're gonna go raid tomorrow. And I wanna go with them.” She scrunches her face up distastefully. “I don't wanna be stuck here with you teaching you how to hold a spoon.”

“Isn't the best way to take me along with you? On the raid? If you want me to be a junker -”

“Ha! You'd be a deadweight. You'd be extra baggage. No way can they take you.” She leans back, and in the firelight I can make out the dark leather of her clothes, ripped in places, covered by small metal plates in others. A handgun bulges at her right hip. I wonder if she's a heavy sleeper, if I could manage to take it and run. Unlike when I was on the bike, I'm not tied down with rope anymore.

Either they trust me not to run away, or they trust themselves to make sure I don't.

I sigh, and lie back down. “Sorry, Thalay,” I say, pronouncing it with an exaggerated thhhh. “We haven't got a deal if the deal’s gonna get me killed.”

She rolls her eyes again. “You're useless.”

“Can't help it. I didn't ask to come.”

“I know, but it doesn't change that you're an annoying little bitch. I don't wanna stay back here when they're out raising hell and having fun.” She spits at the ground and kicks at it with her boot. “So dumb. You're such a little bitch.”

“You said that,” I say.

“Because it's true.” She stands up with a loud enough rustle that Mariah shifts in her sleep, her breathing changing abruptly. Thalay’s eyes go wild, and for a second she's utterly still. “Oh, shit.”

“She awake?” I mumble, not caring that I'm twice as loud as I should be.

“Almost. And I'm supposed to be on the other side of the fire from you.” She curls her lip. “They think I don't like you, or something.”

“Ouch. I wonder why.”

She gives me a dark look. “It isn't my fault you're so unlikeable. Also, that outfit makes me gag. You should change it when you get the chance.”

“I was too worried about feeding my family to go shopping for clothes.”

“Mhm.” She gives me another long look, scanning me from head to toe, and then she walks away, kicking at the sand as she goes. I watch her curiously – her lanky stride, the strange fluidity of every movement, the way she holds her head high and chin up and the way her hair tousles automatically. Her jacket hangs just off her shoulders, leaving them pale and bare. I bet she usually covers them up, keeps them from the sun. Otherwise she'd be as dark as black coffee.

“Thalay,” I say, after a moment.

She turns around. Her eyes are a strange color of blue that almost glow in the dark. Eerie.

“Yeah?” she mouths at me.

I'm about to reply when Mariah shifts suddenly and sits straight up, her eyes wide open, lips tightened into a thin line. Shit, shit, shit. Thalay’s glaring at me like this is somehow my fault, even though she’s the one that woke me up. But Mariah doesn't get angry at us. Instead, she casts one glance at the people around the fire, and, in a voice sharp enough to cut through stone, she snaps, “Up!”

Thalay’s eyes go wide, too. She bolts for the bikes. So do the others, as soon as they're on their feet. One of the men stops by the fire and stamps it out. It takes me a moment to realize that nobody's gonna come and make sure I'm not left behind, and then I'm sprinting for Mariah’s bike, my feet kicking up dust in my wake.

But I don't end up on Mariah’s bike. One of the guys grabs me instead, his hands big underneath my armpits, lifting me like I'm a lightweight and dropping me just as easily onto the bike in front of him. I don't have time to say anything, or get a good look at my partner, before the engine revs and we're shooting off into the sand.

I glance behind us, wondering if we've left anything behind. But no. All of the packs are already secured to the bikes, bulky against the metal. Everything is dark, dark, so dark that I have to squint to try and make out anything, and even so I can barely make out the bike ahead of us or to our sides. Just the blackness. Just the blackness and the stars glowing faintly above us.

Well, Joanna, you got yourself in a shitstorm this time, didn'tcha?

No, actually. That was Momma’s fault.

Doesn't change the fact that I'm majorly fucked.

Maybe what bugs me most is that I don't even know what we're riding towards, or away from. Why we upped and went so fast. Why we’re leavin’ in the middle of the night when all of us should be sound asleep and walking the land of dreams. I absolutely hate not knowing things, because it means I'm absolutely powerless.

Momma always told me I liked to be in control. That's just about the only thing she was ever right about, in the end.

I squeeze my eyes shut against the sand and grip the bike so hard my knuckles scream. At some point, the guy behind me offers an extra helmet. No idea where he got it from.

One of the women – a wiry redhead – leans across from next to us, shouting to be heard over the rumble and roar of the bikes. I can't see her face, but I imagine her lips curl into a smirk and her eyes wink in the light – or would, if there was any light for them to wink by. “You're a fucker, Marcus,” she says roughly. “You're a disgusting fucker.”

And then she lets out a laugh loud enough to be heard halfway across the city.