For your reading pleasure, an excerpt from chapter one of my novel Still Dreaming:
But the world was ending, crashing in around him.
But he couldn’t move. Chipped concrete bit into his cheek. As he struggled to push himself up, something heavy slid off his back. Rusted metal shards and glass crunched beneath his gloved hands. He could taste smoke.
Someone pulled him to his feet and dragged him forward. But he remembered being alone. He had come alone. A roar from behind crashed against his ears and the floor tossed beneath him. Then it stopped, and he stopped, too, dropping to the ground after his rescuer let him go.
Alone again. He imagined Sleep whispering gently to him, offering peace like a blanket over his shoulders. In a panic, he shook the storybook image out of his mind. It was just a story. It wasn’t real. He couldn’t pass out.
Ransom’s eyes opened and he jerked to his knees at the sound of a voice he knew. He winced at bright light coming from above him. It was only partially blocked by a familiar silhouette, his friend Frost.
His strong hand took hold of Ransom’s arm and propelled him towards a crumpled door in a wall ahead of him. One arm raised against the fierce glare, he crawled through the space, blundering into light.
Ransom staggered a few steps onto an adjoining roof before he felt a tug on his right hand. Squinting, he saw a small boy wearing an orange coat. He was saying something, but Ransom couldn’t make out any of the words. A moment later, part of his blurry world shifted back into focus.
“Cinder…” he managed say. The boy’s bright brown eyes shimmered with a combination of relief and worry that dragged on Ransom’s shoulders as much as exhaustion. The thought of his friends, the closest thing he had to family, warmed him, but he quickly pushed the feeling away. He was too angry to hold on to it.
“He’s talking!” Cinder called out. “He must be okay!”
This set Ransom’s ears ringing. He sat down, shaking.
“I knew you’d be okay! I knew it—knew it!” Cinder’s voice rang out like a bell, the notes flitting away with the tireless energy that the boy possessed. He sat down beside Ransom, his hands dropping into his lap, head tilted to the side.
Ransom, his eyes finally adjusting to the brightness of the slanting afternoon, could now see that he was sitting on the roof of an apartment building beside the signal tower. Tall cloud-scrapers rose up around them, reaching towards Daydream, the city on the other side of their sky. Rusted shingles lay scattered across the rooftop like sunlit puddles of golden rain.
He remembered that he wasn’t supposed to be there at all. The tower wasn’t safe. They all knew that. He’d gone in anyway, trying to prove he could break his own boundaries. He coughed out bits of smoke.
“Ransom!” Cinder pressed. “Say something else.”
Frost ducked out of the tower and stepped onto the roof. He was wearing a deep blue coat and black gloves fastened with small buckles down his arms. The ends of a tattered scarf around his neck waved behind him as he strode towards them. Under one arm, he was carrying a flat metal panel that looked like it had been damaged in the collapse. As he drew closer, Ransom could see that it was his own skyboard, or at least what was left of it. He had crafted a loose starburst motif on the underside of the casing, framed by stripes of red and orange, and now it seemed some of the stars were escaping from the design as the board sparked fitfully. Cinder sat down beside him again as Frost put the skyboard down and knelt in front of Ransom.
“I’m okay…I think.” Ransom pulled off his shabby hat and smoothed his dirty blond hair forward. Glancing up, he found himself staring into Frost’s blue almond-shaped eyes. They were both the same age, but at that moment, his friend seemed much older. While Frost’s stare usually reminded him of stillness and crisp air, it could be a wickedly cold stare, too. It snapped him awake. It brought the world shuddering back to the right speed. And it told him only a harsh whisper of the agony he had just put his friends through.
He was grateful for the chance to look away when Frost leaned back, his dark hair falling away from his face. Finding no sign of a concussion, his friend looked relieved.
“You feelin’ okay?” Cinder asked. “Ransom?”
Ransom ran a quick check of himself to make sure he was intact. All he found was a tear in one sleeve, dirt and grease smudges across his dark red coat and on the hood of the gray jacket he wore beneath it. Other than his pounding pulse, some bruises, and jarred bones, he seemed to be fine. The green glass star that he wore on a string around his neck had escaped from beneath his coat, so he stuffed it back down his shirt.
“Just a headache…” he answered.
“You’re lucky that we found you.” Cinder’s seriousness stung Ransom. He hadn’t wanted them to know where he’d gone, much less come after him.
“Why’d you go in the tower?” Cinder asked. “You said it’d collapse any day now.”
“I was… I was looking for something.” He tried to sound cheerful for Cinder’s sake. It hurt to see the boy looking so worried, and hurt more to know that it was his fault. Thankfully, the answer stirred up some of Cinder’s chirpiness again.
“Did you find it?”
“What? No, I didn’t.” Ransom shrugged. That part, at least, was true. He hadn’t found any sense of accomplishment by almost getting crushed by a concrete slab. “Did you see…?” He didn’t finish the question. As his head and the dust cleared, he wasn’t even sure that someone else had been there before Frost pulled him out. Could he have imagined it?
Frost rose and held out his hand, as if Ransom could place an explanation in his palm. He wasn’t fooled. Ransom took the offered hand and pulled himself to his feet. Frost sent Cinder to get his own skyboard and he dashed off, leaving them alone. Adrenaline kept Ransom moving. He picked up a cracked shingle beside his foot and broke it.
He felt the hard roof beneath his feet, steady against his shaking. A light haze covered their city, Deepest Sleep. Gray metal spires reached into the heights of the heavens, throwing shadows into the depths of the industrial maze below. His own shadow was fading.
Between two buildings, he caught a glimpse of the wall around the Old Sector winding like a stone serpent in the distance and marking the two hundred and fifty year division between their mismatched metropolis and the abandoned city beyond. Frost waited a few feet behind him. Frowning, Ransom threw one of the broken pieces off the roof and watched it disappear.
“I know,” he said. “You’re going to say that I always know what I’m doing.”
“Then that…?” Frost asked quietly.
The other young man answered with usual silence.
“It doesn’t matter!” Ransom hurled the other piece. “You didn’t have to come,” he said in a quieter tone.
Frost crossed his arms and pinned him with a skeptical stare.
“I would have been fine!” Ransom shouted. “I can take care of myself. I don’t need you to always come running.” He stopped himself from going on, painfully aware that he hadn’t escaped without help.
Cinder’s rapid approach broke their exchange.
“Uh, I don’t think you can fly your board back home, Ransom,” Cinder said. Relieved for the distraction, Ransom took it. The board had stopped sparking, but it was completely dead. Another casualty of his choices.
Cinder’s small hand traced one of the tooled designs on the underside of the craft. As he dropped his hand, the sun dipped behind the rooftop horizon and invited shadows to spread across the city. Cinder pulled the hood of his coat over his head and hugged himself. The soft ears sewn to the top of his hood made him look catlike in the growing darkness. The two teenagers searched the sky and saw dark clouds rolling over the Old Sector.
“We need to get inside,” Ransom said to Frost, who nodded vaguely. His friend looked as if he was going to say something, but he said nothing. A few snowflakes drifted to the ground, a deceptively peaceful prelude to the violent storms that terrorized Deepest Sleep in the winter. Right then, the sky above them was bound with ribbons of coming twilight and sunset, dappled with stars.
Frost stepped onto his board and crouched to tie the bindings, two slender beaded plaits of hair slipping off his right shoulder and clicking together. He tapped a control switch on the side of the sleek black casing, and the board rose a few inches off the concrete. A cascade of silver sparks skittered around him. Ransom went to join him, discovering a developing bruise on his knee as he hobbled over and sat down on the board behind Frost.
“Just remember I’m back here, all right?” Ransom said, pulling up the goggles that hung around his neck.
A strong gust swirled past, reminding them of the imminent storm and warmer places to be. Frost pulled down his clear-lensed goggles, a question easily read from his face.
“Yeah, I’m set. Let’s get out of here,” Ransom answered, reassuring himself of the hold he had on the board. Frost crouched slightly, and the craft began to glide forward.
“Lead away, Cinder.” Ransom waved him on.
Cinder zipped past with a flash of crimson light, kicking up a breeze that ruffled their hair and teased the ends of Frost’s scarf. They reached the edge of the rooftop and then dropped off. Arctic wind howled in his ears as they dove into the dark depths of the city. Ransom’s heart raced, feeling the loss of control shiver through his body from his feet to the top of his head. Stirred by their flight, a roost of Mareravens took to the air. The birds flew downwards with them in the rushing draftwind, shadows flickering around the boys and scattering the glowing red sparks to the wind. As they neared the ground, the Mareravens scattered in a chaos of black feathers, abandoning the boys to look for a welcoming nook to nest in.
On the city floor, it seemed as if the corroded iron and brick had been the soil and the walls had merely pushed up through it. Turning sharply, they flew past an old edifice that had lost two walls to an explosion. The remaining walls still glowered with weather-faded scorch marks.
Past that landmark, the streets were only partially cracked and even patched in some places. While the windows in these buildings were smaller, most of them were filled with glass. A few were even lit. The boys broke away from following the road to cut across part of an open area covered with dirt and scraps of dry grass.
Frost leaned forward, steering gently over a small lake that spread like tarnished glass. The silver sparks from Frost’s skyboard trail fell silently to the surface of the ice, where the light met its reflection and winked out. Ransom stared downwards, his vision blurred with snowflakes. A headache was all he had to show for his recklessness. What did he think he could prove? That he was brave? That he could go it alone? It had been a stupid dare to go into the tower, and worse, he had put himself up to it. Without his friends, without whoever had pulled him to the exit, he would have died there. He didn’t want to think about it.
The sun of their city had almost fully set now. Some of the streets in this area had working lights that offered a meager glow against the dark, but they were few and far between. The light from their boards flickered in and out of shadows like fireflies. As expected, there was not a single person in sight. Only the wind whispered in the alleyways.
Ransom’s eye caught some movement in the darkness. He tensed, but it had just been an animal of some kind and not a prowling Nightmare. The boys would have known if it was one of those monsters out hunting, but he kept his gaze moving nonetheless. Then they reached the place that all of them could find in their sleep.
Home was a place tucked away from the biting wind and cruel weather, sheltered from the worst drafts by the battered walls of the surrounding structures and a steep hill to the back. From the outside, the place appeared to be another remnant of lost years, a stately building bent by hardship and unstable ground until it came to rest on its side. A single streetlight glowed invitingly beside the toppled structure. The walls were cracked in some places and many of the windows were shattered, but when Ransom saw them, he thought of warmth and safety.
Stopping by the streetlight, Cinder hit a worn button on the top of his skyboard. After the board settled to the ground and the last sparks skipped away, he held the warm metal close to his chest. Frost came to a gentle halt to let his passenger slide off slowly. Then he stepped off, and with a forceful step on the back end, flipped it up into his hands.
“Can I have the drink when we get home?” Cinder asked, bobbing to keep warm.
“Did you wash the cups?” Ransom replied.
Looking back at Cinder, he nodded. “It’s our tradition, right?” He hoped getting back to their usual routine would salvage what was left of the day he had almost ruined.
Taking hold of a low window alcove, Frost started crawling towards two large doors set a small distance above the sidewalk. He pulled the lower door open to create a platform to crouch on. He waved to them after peering inside. Ransom took Cinder’s skyboard and secured it to his back. He scaled the wall easily, reaching down and helping the boy up after him. A rope tied to the door handle slithered off into the interior.
Ransom ducked beneath the other door. Climbing down, he moved through the blackness, feeling familiar handholds. He dropped to the floor, remembering too late that his knee was already hurting, and then reached into his coat pocket to pull out a glass globe. He turned it over in his hands and rubbed it to encourage a glow from within the sphere. The light grew steadily, revealing the mound of tables and desks piled up to the height of the doors.
“Okay, come on,” Ransom called up, holding the light above his head like a guiding star.
Cinder slowly slid backwards off of the door, Frost only letting go of his hands when his feet reached the top of the closest table. After the door was closed again, they stepped up onto a raised platform that had at one time been a wall of shelves reaching down the length of the cavernous hall. They crossed over the empty shelves on a zigzagging path of planks laid across the carved beams.
Navigating the walkway, they crossed to the end of the hall where their light revealed another door. They used the shelves as a ladder to reach it. As he climbed up, Cinder stopped a moment and tilted his head to stare at small engravings on the wood.
“What are these numbers for?” he asked. “Why would somebody carve their address here?” He looked at other markings higher up. “Lots of small somebodies?”
Ransom motioned for Cinder to keep moving as he said, “It wasn’t an address for people. It was a different kind. I told you, remember?”
“Yeah, I remember you told me.”
“I didn’t listen.” Cinder beamed.
Ransom groaned a little as he pulled the boy into the doorway. “You tell him, Frost. If you say it, he’ll probably remember.”
Cinder looked up expectantly and his eyes caught the light, making them look like they flashed with interest. “So what are they addresses for?”
“Books,” Frost answered.
“Books?” Cinder looked puzzled.
To their left, the light dimly reflected on grey and deep blue tiles set in flowing patterns. Part of a vaulted ceiling embellished with a mural stretched to their right. Only delicately brushed clouds were visible in the partial light, and the three boys seemed to walk among them as they moved past.
“But…” Cinder had gotten a better grip on the question he wanted to ask. “We live here. We’re not books, though, right?”
“I’m not, but I’m beginning to think you’re pure fiction,” Ransom joked.
“Unbelievable.” Ransom shook his head. He winced as his head throbbed. “Haven’t we taught you anything?” It wasn’t the first time he wondered if Cinder would make it to adulthood—or even the Nightingale Festival some weeks away—with just two teenagers to raise him. After what happened at the tower, the boy might realize that Ransom was making it up as he went.