Damaged Goods, YA Science Fiction

Name: Flor Salcedo

Genre: YA/Science Fiction

Title: Damaged Goods

Word Count: 100,000

Themes: Body Image, Disability


35 Word Pitch:

Stuttering girl with hi-tech prosthetic arm hardly talks, runs from child snatchers. Quirky boy that won’t shut up helps find her voice. They’re unaware they’re living a lie. CITY OF EMBER meets MAD MAX:FURY ROAD


First 500 words:

They came to reduce our numbers, again. Except this time, one of our soldiers rode up with a haunted face and two fingers in the air. It took my father a few seconds to figure out that it meant it was two children snatched away instead of the usual one. The entirety of our army froze when they turned to find me behind them, listening. Then there was chatter prattle from the group, the rumble of the horse’s hoof beats, my father in a frenzy, checking on me every few minutes. We’re back on the move as my father’s army desperately tries to warn the townspeople when an attack is coming or intercept it if we’re too late.

Our group rests in this building on the northern part of the continent. It’s big, forbidden-like, as if I’m walking the hallways of a netherworld in here. Rarely being around doors, they appear alive as if they’re rushing to close themselves behind me. They trap me.

But I’m one of the lucky ones. I’ve made it thirteen years, and in a couple more, I’ll no longer be a child the enemy wants.

I sit at the edge of a chair, uncertain when my father will come back. The cavernous room hums and each careful cracking of my knuckles bounces off the walls. It was an office, I’m sure of it. It has the smooth shiny tables I’ve read about and cushioned chairs. In one town, a lady with a rolling office chair would place her sick kid in it and push him around on the few remaining strips of sidewalk—the kid giving a barely distinguishable smile. Though the inside of this building is plain and stringent looking, it doesn’t compare to the rigid outside, with its serious gray walls and multiple jutting out ledges like chins. This building used to be a government building hundreds of years ago. It’s one of the few left standing. It was built extra strong, that’s why it remains. That’s what my father said when I asked him yesterday.

I pick up a book and continue where I left off. The door creaks open and I jump in my seat and hide the book behind my back.

Father pokes his head inside. “Please start gathering your items, Joe. We leave soon,” he says in as neutral tone as he can muster. He closes the door and leaves me again.

But I’m already ready. I hold my backpack tight in one arm and a book called Lover in Your Dreams in the other. Thankfully, this building still had useful items. The book is much more adult than my father would want me reading. I scan through a questionable scene before I snap it shut and hide it under another book. On top of the table lie other books I’ve set aside that have pictures and extra advanced words, manuals and such. Hopefully, my father can explain later.

When my people arrived here to Meridies Sur, two years before I was born, the continent was completely empty.

Beautiful Restless Youth, YA Contemporary

Name: Gabriela Martins

Genre: YA/contemporary with hints of magical realism

Title: Beautiful Restless Youth

Word Count: 82,000 words

Themes: LGBT representation (bisexual, demisexual, homosexual), Latinx Brazilian representaiton (the story is set in Brazil, so all characters are Brazilian), learning disability representation (dyslexia and dyscalculia).


35-Word Pitch:

Queer Dorian Gray retold in southern Brazil. When an explicit picture leaks onto the Internet and the entire Catholic Schools phones, those responsible must pay.


First 500 words:

“Not the face.” Dante sighed, staring up.

It wasn’t enough to convince Caetano. Before Dante could either argue or try to block it, Caetano’s fist came crushing down against Dante’s eye. Dante fell backwards, his chin tilting up. His green eyes glanced at the sky for what felt like a second frozen in time. It was such a beautiful, sunny day. What a horrible way to start his Monday.

Time didn’t stay frozen. His back hit the asphalt and, a second later, his head did too, a thud that made everyone hold their breaths for a second. A sharp pain shot through his eye, making him yell, but Caetano wasn’t done. As the crowd cheered and screamed, some streaming the fight on their Snapchat or Instagram stories, Caetano jumped on him. All Dante felt was the weight of the older boy on his stomach as his fist connected again against his jaw. He thrashed this time, struggling as his hands came up to try and punch Caetano’s stomach, but Caetano was all made of muscles.

Dante’s vision was blurry, but he didn’t think of crying. The throbbing pain along his jaw and around his eye only made him sweat harder, choking up, his pathetic attempts at defense useless.

“What is happening here?” someone shouted.

The world wanted to make up for its short time frozen, now going fast forward. Dante let his body fall back, the weight on his muscles dissolving as someone pulled Caetano from him. He blinked at the sky, breathing out in chunks as his chest heaved. The sun was bright against his brown freckled skin. It was the type of day that would make his Mom happy. He smiled absentmindedly, but his lip was split. He winced at the pain.

Trying to blink away the knots in his stomach, he realized the voices started making sense. They hushed and laughed nervously, and Caetano argued loudly with Prof Marcelo. He heard someone beg the teacher to be reasonable, probably one of Caetano’s friends, and the chatter started to grow. Nobody knelt down next to him, but he could feel all the looks and still a few discreet phone pointed his way. He kept his eyes to the sky, trying to steady his breath. 

It was all going to be alright.

Prof Marcelo whistled loudly, and all conversation and argument died down.

“I don’t want to hear it,” he said firmly, his voice the equivalent of a block of ice. “You’re both going to Principal Sister Cecilia’s office, but I’m taking Dante to the infirmary first. Make way, make way!” 

Everyone did. They wouldn’t seriously argue with any teacher, much less Prof Marcelo.

Dante frowned, lying on the middle of the street just outside Catholic School Saint Virgin Mary. The school, one of the most prestigious in the south of Brazil, and definitely the best in Porto Alegre, was near a train station, with a bus stop on each side of the campus, which facilitated making the entrance of the school a hangout point in the early mornings.

The Love You Take, YA Contemporary

Name: Daniel Alemán

Genre: YA Contemporary

Title: The Love You Take

Word Count: 81,000

Themes: LGBT (#ownvoices)


Your 35-Word Pitch:

When a hate crime ends in a tragic death, Chris must prove he and his boyfriend were not to blame for what happened.


First 500 words:


By the time I’m given a voice to tell my story, it’s already too late.

A red light blinks on the tape recorder, but the room is filled with nothing but silence. In the back of my mind, I can’t help but think of how ironic it is that now that someone is willing to listen, I can’t speak. Even though I’ve finally been given the voice I fought so badly to obtain, I can’t use it. Even though it’s all right there — all the fear, all the pain, so close to the surface that it’s clogging up my airway — I can’t let it out.

“Maybe we could do this another time,” the author says, shifting in her seat. She reaches for the tape recorder, but I gesture her to stop.

She lifts her eyebrows, staring at me through her glasses without blinking. I look up at her hair, which was the first thing I noticed when she arrived. It’s shoulder length, dry as straw. The half that is closer to her head is light gray. The bottom half is blond. I wonder when and why she made the decision to stop dyeing it. Maybe she woke up one morning and decided to stop pretending to be someone she’s not. Maybe she chose to welcome the gray hair like an old friend she hadn’t seen in a while. After all, I don’t think anyone could deny that gray hair is a privilege — a sign that you have lived.

I meet her eyes and find kindness in them, which reminds me of the reason why I agreed to this in the first place. It wasn’t because of her fancy journalism degree or because she’s a bestselling author. What helped me make up my mind in the end was that she had kind eyes, even in the pictures of her I found on the Internet.

“Why don’t we start with something a bit more simple?” she says. “Could you tell me a little about the town where you grew up?”

When I don’t answer, she leans forward in her chair. “Chris,” she says, “I can’t imagine how hard it must be for you to revisit the past. But I know you have a story that deserves to be told.” Even though her voice is soft, there’s a hint of desperation hidden somewhere. I can’t blame her for it — not when she traveled hundreds of miles only to come sit in front of a mute man. “If you tell me your story, I can help you share it with the rest of the world.”

I take a deep breath that makes me feel as though I’ve taken all the air from the room. “All right,” I say finally. I don’t really know where the words are coming from, but it doesn’t really matter. I just let them escape my mouth without thinking. “I’ll tell you my story.”



I was sixteen years old the fall that my parents finally decided to buy a microwave.

“My own mother never had a microwave in her kitchen, and she managed just fine,” Mom would say.

Phoenix Rising, YA Paranormal

Name: Monica Sanz

Genre: YA Paranormal


Word Count: 99,000

Themes: #ownvoices (Main character is afro-latina)


Your 35-Word Pitch:

A grieving 17-year-old witch discovers her dead best friend is a Phoenix and must recover his stolen ashes before they’re used to invoke the demon that will destroy her.


Your first 500 words:

I still remember when he walked out and slammed the door behind him. The sudden emptiness in my chest told me something would change forever. Ryan never slammed doors, never got mad. He was the calm, and I was the storm. He was the balm, and I was the burn. Now he’s dead, and it finally feels like we’re one and the same.

An unseasonably cool August breeze blows a curtain of yellow flowers from the dogwood tree across my backyard. One bloom clings to my bottom lip. I start to brush it away but stop; maybe this is a gift from Ryan somehow. A kiss from a flower to make up for all the kisses that will never come again. I close my eyes; another gust whips past and like him, the flower is gone.

My chest caves and I hate myself for thinking this. It’s a stupid thought, and a dumb flower. The dead don’t send their love from the other side. They leave us here to mourn their departure, surrounded by cold gusts of wind, flowers, and memories.

The patio door groans open behind me. “Callie? Why are you out here so early?” My mom stands on the top step, a mug of coffee cupped in her palms. Her tight, black curls are tied up in a crooked ponytail, her face still puffy from sleep. “You could’ve slept longer. I would’ve driven you in.”

I curl into my jacket—not my jacket, but Ryan’s—and turn my head down, to the blanket of dead flowers scattered around me. My nose brushes against the collar. Ryan’s scent of musk and pine clings to the fabric and fills my nose, clutches my heart and squeezes.

“I couldn’t sleep. You don’t have to drive me. I thought I’d swing by the…by…to see Ryan.” My throat dries and words fade. I’m grateful to the next gust that rustles the leaves; their hush steals away the crack in my voice.

Mom presses her lips together and nods. Before Ryan’s death, she’d never let me leave the house at 6 am, regardless of how safe our town is. But I think she senses what I know. Whatever happens to me doesn’t matter. My life was tied to Ryan’s. I’m already dead.

She sits on the top porch step and brings the cupped mug to a rest on her knees. “Call me if you want me to pick you up… and be careful.”

I dig into my messenger bag and hold up my can of Mace. “Always am.” I don’t bother telling her I fell asleep looking at pictures of Ryan and so my battery is at 2%. No reason to worry her, I’ll charge it at school.

Turning, I walk the length of the yard and open the back wooden gate. It’s in desperate need of oil and moans in protest, reminding me of the countless times I promised Mom I’d take care of it.

“I love you, Callie. I’m here for you, whenever you need me.”

Bitter Mango, YA Contemporary

Name: Gerardo Delgadillo
Genre: YA/Contemporary
Title: Bitter Mango
Word Count: 84,000 words
Themes: #ownvoices
Your 35-Word Pitch:
An insane stalker, a demanding new job, and a ton of school work are all that’s standing between 17yo Minerva and her dream of joining the most prestigious theater company in her Mexican town.
First 500 words:

One-thousand pesos a week.

For a job at a food stall in Mercado Imperial. I’ve never heard of this market and don’t know where it is. For sure it involves standing on my feet all day attending mean customers, which sounds so horrible.

When I arrived home a minute ago, Amá—my mamá—spew out the bad news and went to the kitchen. I froze in the living room.

Now, I smooth my dress and approach her. “Wh-why—” I clear my throat. “Why did you get me another job, Amá? I love the one I have.” The words float out of my mouth, like begging. I’m not.

Amá turns from the sink, wiping her hands on her apron. “Mil pesos will help pay the rent, Minerva.”

“Ay, Amá.” I brush hair from my eyes. “What about my current job at the laundry shop?”

“¿La lavandería?” She scoffs. “It only paid five hundred pesos a week.”

Paid, as if it were a thing of the past. But now that I ponder on it, maybe she quit on my behalf. “But this job’s around the corner,” I press on, unable to contain myself. “They let me do my homework while waiting for customers.”

She brings a finger to her lips. “You sisters are sleeping.”

“Sorry.” With all of this, I forgot it’s after ten p.m.

“I’ve already talked to the lavandería owner.” She wipes her hands on her apron. “You start your new job tomorrow.”

“That fast?” I ask, mostly to myself. “You didn’t let me say goodbye to my boss and co-workers.”

She shakes her head. “You can do that later.”

“But Amá!” I snap as my heart explodes in anger.

She slumps her shoulders. “I know, Minerva.”

I want to shout that she should’ve ask me first. Instead, I blurt, “Know what?”

“I know how you feel.” Amá peers at the bedroom in the back. “Do it for them.”

The twins—my little sisters. They … they’re a reminder of our precarious situation. Rent’s already a month behind, and then there’s food and other things. I wait for my heartbeat to normalize. Thump, thump, thump. Thump. Thump. There. “How far is Mercado Imperial?”

Amá shrugs. “Only diez kilómetros.”

Ten kilometers. “It’s too far away.”

She frowns. “Do you know how hard it was to get you this job?”

I curl my fingers into fists and don’t reply—don’t want to say something hurtful.

“Most teens can’t get a job at all.” She crosses her arms. “I asked a lot of people until I found Doña Caro.”

Amá’s doing this for us, as a family. She doesn’t deserve my anger. I uncurl my hands and relax my shoulders. “Doña Caro?”

“The food stall’s owner.” My mamá turns to the sink and opens the tap, as if done with the conversation.

Perhaps the new job will allow us to move to a bigger house in a better neighborhood, not that this subdivision is super horrible, but well, we don’t even have paved streets, sidewalks, or anything.

Mend, YA Contemporary Fantasy

Name:  Vanessa L. Torres

Genre: YA, Contemporary Fantasy

Title: MEND

Word Count: 99,000

Themes:  #ownvoices. Mexican mythology in current times. Girls and science! Girls involved in emergency medicine and firefighting.


35 word Pitch: 

Newbie reaper Luz Amelia discovers she is a healer. If cheating death feels as good as kissing the mysterious new kid, she’s all in.


First 500 words:

I smelled like death, the preserved-in-a-jar kind.

“Luz Amelia!” The sound of my name jolted me upright.

Fluorescent bulbs flickered on, flooding the room with cold light. My hair felt unusual, weighted. I ran my fingers through it, catching them on something foreign and rubbery.

The bell rang and the Friday energy whirled out the door, leaving me abandoned on the deserted island of senior year Advanced Biology.

“You planning on camping here for the weekend, young lady?” Mr. Nelson called to me from the front of the room.

“Sorry,” I said, embarrassed to have been caught sleeping in class.

He puffed out a short sigh as I pulled a long section of entrails from my hair.

A few kids hovered outside the door, hoping to score big from my reaction. Mr. Nelson gave them the side-eye and they left disappointed. It would take a lot more than some stringy pig guts to gross me out. Amateurs.

“Please don’t say anything—to anyone.” I gathered the intestines. “I’m fine.”

He brought me a metal specimen tray.

Whoever had dissected the fetal pig in front of me was a hack. Mutilated, with careless jagged cuts, the yellowish-pink skin was actually ripped in some places. Absolutely no respect for the life given. Today they’d picked the small intestines for their prank. I wound the crimped tubing around two fingers and placed it back where it belonged in the pig’s abdominal cavity.

Mr. Nelson looked at me as though I were either the saddest sap he’d ever seen, or nuts. I couldn’t tell. I wasn’t that great at reading people. Looking at faces wasn’t really my thing.

“Go. See you Monday.” He pointed at the door.

“Sorry again—for sleeping.”

He nodded. “It was a boring movie anyway.”

I wasted zero time pushing back my chair. Something rolled off my shoulder, plunking onto my desk.

“Kidney.” I pulled back the pile of intestines, nestling the pale bean behind them. “I guess I’ll let you know if I find the other one.”

Out of words for me, Mr. Nelson took back the tray, confirming he’d decided I was definitely nuts.

I was crazy—crazy tired. I’d barely slept the last few nights, my nerves on edge. Tonight would be my first volunteer shift at the fire department since Papa burned to ashes three months ago.

I tightened the scarf forever wrapped around my neck and sized-up the crowd from the doorway. Out came my music. In went the earbuds. On went Pink Floyd. I dodged a swarm of students exchanging books for parkas from their lockers and flew down the stairs two at a time.

The Burn Kingdom, YA Fantasy

Name: Jamie Rusovick-Smith

Genre: YA Fantasy

Title: The Burn Kingdom

Word Count: 74,000

Themes: #ownvoices


35-Word Pitch:

Vengeful Mother Nature created fire-wielding Azara to destroy humanity. But when Azara falls for an undisciplined Brujo on her hit list, she must choose between loyalty to her family and her newfound love of humankind.


First 500 words:

Azara hated the dark. She stepped into the cave, even as her fingers grew numb with dread, and let herself sigh. Her breath fluttered like a moth in her chest. Disquieted. Unsure. The heavy scent of rain and iron raked at her nerves, but she forced herself to walk farther into the shadows anyway. She listened for a sign of movement, or a drip of water. Only her muffled footfalls on the packed dirt met her ears. Azara took step after step. Trust was always part of these tests. Follow me into the darkness and I will make you a master of it, Mother had said the first time. As if a girl with fire burning in her veins could ever fully embrace the dark. Even now her flesh held a faint red glow beneath her olive complexion.

Something scuffled from deeper in the cave. A skitter to her left, and Azara froze. The chambers of her coal-heart clinked faster, as she swallowed the anxiety clawing its way up her throat. It’s just another test. One more trial, and if she got this right, Mother would set her free.

Flames below, the only thing Azara wanted in life was to see the outside world. To see it and touch it and feel it, at least once, before she had to destroy it.

As her eyes adjusted to the dim, Azara’s panic abated. Ahead of her, Mother Nature stood, arms folded across her chest, her color-changing eyes already a most annoyed yellow. Or perhaps it was trepidation staring back at Azara? Even her mother could not hide in the shadows completely. Along with her glowing eyes, Mother’s glittering, energy-filled skin cast a blue glow around her person, much like the haze that surrounds a flame. She raised her arms— the fabric of her sleeves skimmed the dusty cave floor— and the energy coursing through her body channeled into the ground. It shot out from her like a crooked spider’s web, snaked up the walls and into the rusted sconces, each held in place with a spike. Azara rubbed the back of her head, touched the thin band of scarring hiding under her raven hair, and tried not to dwell on the last time she disappointed Mother in this room.

With a clap of Mother’s hands, the sconces burst to life, and revealed Grimmer— Azara’s mentor— lounging against the sloped cave wall. He nodded to her but said nothing. Hope swelled behind Azara’s ribcage. They had practiced so, so long. She could do this for him. Make him proud of her, this once.

“I haven’t got all day, darling,” Mother drawled. Her voice held all the power of a hurricane, even as it came with the subtlety of venom. It set Azara’s teeth on edge.

Right. Her test, which she was expected to fail. Well, Azara would show her something.

Settled into her stance— feet a foot apart, shoulders back, chin high— Azara took a deep breath and raised her hands.

Conflagration, YA Fantasy

Name: Mandy Rosas

Genre: YA Fantasy

Title: Conflagration

Word Count: 57,000

Themes: #ownvoices LGBTQIA



35 word pitch:

CONFLAGRATION is a f/f asexual story about an ex-queen turned assassin who is faced with an impossible choice: take back the crown she never wanted to save her family, or keep her freedom.


First 500 words:

Cursing in a way that would make her Mama faint, Helga stomped her way through the sewage, chasing after the man who was assigned to her that night.

She really hated it when they ran.

With an impatient mumble, she flicked her elegant hands and a ball of fire danced up from her fingertips and floated up towards the damp ceiling of the tunnel. Really, it would have been so easy to just send it after her target and have it done with, but Raul insisted that his client wanted the body to be found. And angering Raul over such technicalities really wasn’t worth it. Sometimes she wondered if she should just tell him who she had been, once upon a time, to see if he’d stop threatening her so much, but really it just wasn’t worth the lack of anonymity. Besides, it wasn’t like he could actually hurt her. There was a reason he wasn’t the one chasing contraband thieves through sewers, after all.

And that was that he couldn’t fight worth shit, and he knew it.

Pulling on the magic within her, Helga forced her legs to run faster, ignoring the slosh of sewer juice as it penetrated her skirts. Yet another ruined outfit. She really should get paid better for this crap.

Sighting her target in the distance, she pushed herself into a run before she jumped and landed gracefully on his back. The man struggled and swore, but she ignored him, securing his hands behind his back and making sure he wouldn’t run again. In the flickering light cast by her twin flames hovering above them, she could see his pale, clammy skin glisten with fear, sweat, and dirt. He must have moved to this kingdom after the invaders took over, to have skin that sickly pale in the strong, healthy glow of her magic.

“Gerrof me!”

“Sorry,” she said lightly, still sitting on his back, contemplating how to do this so he wasn’t in pain for too long. “Nothing personal, you see.”

The thief went still beneath her, and she could see him trying to turn his head to look at her. “Yer a…”

“Yes, I’m a girl.”

“Nah. Tha’s common ‘nough I reckon. But yer accent. Yer rich.”

She went silent at that, eyes calculating. It hardly happened anymore, people didn’t really know the difference between a sophisticated accent and a foreign one, since the high and mighty rulers didn’t deign to dirty themselves by conversing with the poor.

No one really could understand why she did this. After losing her parents to the invaders when she was eleven, Helga had had to do what she could to survive on the streets, especially since she also had had a young baby brother to take care of. When Raul had offered her a job all those years ago — a way to right all the wrongs that the King and the rest of the royal family did — she had jumped at the chance, especially after he’d told her the going rate.

The Demon Tamer, YA Fantasy

Name: Mikayla Rivera

Genre: YA/Fantasy

Title: The Demon Tamer

Word Count: 85,000

Themes: #ownvoices, emotional health, emotional intelligence


Your 35-Word Pitch:

17-year-old Cecelia Rios becomes a bruja, a witch who masters demon souls, to rescue her sister from the demon El Sombreron—but if the demons discover her plan, she’s dead, and her sister lost forever.


Your first 500 words:

My little sister and I ran toward the death fiesta, our dresses trailing us like nervous flames.

“Huana!” I panted, trying to catch up with her. She lifted her skirts so they wouldn’t touch the dirt road between the town’s adobe houses. “Huana, slow down! I still have to paint you! You can’t dance without it!”

Huana didn’t stop running. “Just hand me the nocheztli paint, I’ll do it.”

I clutched the paint jar and slowed. Huana finally stopped, scowling, to fit my pace.

I bent over, gasping. “I didn’t spend all day putting together your Amenazante outfit so you could slap it together right before the fiesta.” I straightened back up. “If we get any of this wrong, you’ll be nothing but bones to feed hungry teeth.”

As usual, she responded with an annoyed frown. I bit my lips together to stop from saying anything. It was her birthday, and it was her first time doing the Amenazante dance. I didn’t want to ruin this night.

Huana finally relented and stalked over. “You should be more worried about yourself.” She frowned as I swept my hands through the paint. “You didn’t even put fire opal in your hair to protect yourself, you were so busy with my skirts. Everyone’s going to think you’re a bigger fool than usual.”

A flinch moved through my ribs, but I pretended it wasn’t there. After all, it didn’t matter what I looked like this night. All eyes would be on my little sister.

And only half of them would be human.

I lifted my fingers to Huana’s face. She was nearly as tall as me already, even though she was only just fifteen years old today. Her eyes grew harder, sharper, as I framed them in the vicious red blood of the prickly pear—nocheztli, the dancer’s war paint.

“Done?” She huffed.

I stepped back from my day’s worth of work and smiled. Huana’s black hair crowned her head in a voluptuous bun, tight back on the sides of her head. The red flower flourishing from the top left of her bun matched the red dress’s full skirt that swayed like flames around Huana’s ankles.

With nocheztli’s red streaks finally cutting across her face and bare shoulders, she was living fire.

I squeezed the paint in my hands. “You look great.”

“You could have too,” she mumbled. I tried to think of a response to that, but she grabbed my hand and tugged me back into a run: “Just come on!”

We flew through the streets of our village, toward the flock of colors at the edge of town, where the desert met our months of preparation.

My heart pounded faster, even as we slowed to merge with the crowd. The sun had set. Night now blackened the desert beyond our town, hiding what lay beyond. Torches lined the streets. Knotted clumps of basil bobbed along the red rope dividing our town from the desert.

Noche de Muerte was finally here.

Waterland, YA Sci-Fi

Name: Sandra Proudman

Genre: YA Science Fiction – Post-Apocalyptic

Title: Waterland

Word Count: 71,000 words


35-Word Pitch:

Seventeen-year-old orphans, Zelda and Ha-joon, must decide between saving one another, the thousands of people starving outside of Calfornia’s only safe-haven, or the people safe within it. And their choice may not be the same.


First 500 words:

I tilt my head forty-five degrees to read the half-melted and bent over temperature gauge set up in the middle of Union Square. The solar-powered thermostat on it reads a sweltering one-hundred and twenty degrees in electric red letters. Despite it being ten degrees cooler than usual, my lips are so dry from sitting outside they’ve started bleeding, and it only seems to make it worse that I can’t stop licking at them. Sweat rolls down my forehead, neck, back—everywhere—the salt of which bitterly stings my eyes and lips. We don’t have a choice except to sit through the heat, though, because if you don’t get to the lottery early enough, they run out of free food and water. And you endure the temperature after you’ve ate because you must be present to win.

And if you last through enough weeks, months, years, however long it takes you to win, you become one of the lucky few to live in Waterland, California’s only safe-haven.

I stop messing with my lips the moment I spot Ha-joon walking back from the food line he’s waited in for over two hours. Despite the protection that it offers against the blister-inducing rays of the sun, I promptly unwrap the cheche I’m wearing on my head so he can spot me in the crowd. He weaves through hundreds of people already settled in between the line and where I snagged a seat for us on the top step of the plaza. When he gets to me, he hands me my portion; a plastic bowl filled to the brim with thick, cold noodles, and an eight-ounce plastic cup filled with water, which I rest carefully at my feet. He also passes me back my buzzer, with my electronic lottery ticket inside, which he scanned in to get my portion. I take the meal with restrained eagerness because I don’t want him to realize how hungry I am. He sits next to me, in a spot the people around me were kind enough to let me save, and waits until I take my first bite, smiling at the pleasure painted plainly on my face before devouring his own bowl in six ravenous handfuls.

This is the finest meal we’ve had for weeks and it’s overly-salted, yet somehow embarrassingly delicious.

“Best part of the week,” I mumble, my mouth packed with the saline noodles.

Ha-joon moves closer to me, so I can hear him speak through the noise of the crowd. He’s so close now I can feel the heat of his leg against mine through our thin, once-white, and now worn-out, linen pants. “Best part is yet to come.” I follow his gaze down to the water and the fist-sized buzzers currently at our feet. It isn’t every day Waterland has room for new residents. Ha-joon, an unrelenting optimist, eyes our buzzers with overconfidence, as if he’s prophesied we’ll be two out of the three people in all of California lucky enough to be chosen to enter the haven today.