I skidded on a patch of ice as I rounded the corner onto Lafayette Street, only years of experience saving me as I tottered in the bare twelve inches between a shuttered horse- drawn hansom and a Model- T. The white- gloved matron behind the wheel had clearly come to regard her motor vehicle the way one might a pet cat that always vanished at the full moon, and the sight of my bicycle sliding gracefully past broke her remaining self- control. I can’t imagine what she found so terrifying about me. Unless it was the grin I couldn’t keep from my face as I dared the January ice. Daddy always did say I was too reckless in winter.
The matron shrieked and discovered the purpose of that curious little button in the middle of her steering wheel. Her car swerved— thankfully away from the horses, which were even now whinnying and snorting in agitation. I made it past the hansom and auto moments before one of the horses reared and whacked the Model- T’s gleaming rear fender. I winced. Two more seconds and that would have been my stomach.
Damn Tammany Hall, I fumed. Like it would kill those bastards to do something useful like fixing roads between winning elections? Tonight, of course, the criminally narrow streets were relatively clear. No one respectable wanted to be out after sundown on a new moon. I checked my watch— quarter ’til eight— and pedaled faster. It wouldn’t do for the teacher to be tardy to her own class. Especially not this class. And especially not on a new moon.
That’s when I saw it, of course. Just a huddled shadow on an unspeakably dirty street that hundreds of people had probably passed by today without comment. I sailed past it, too, before something made me dig my heels into the ground and turn around to ride back. It wasn’t as though the back of my neck prickled, or I felt a telltale shiver crawl up my skin. I can’t do anything like that, no matter what my students might whisper about me. But I do have a knack for noticing. It’s a skill my daddy cultivated, since I can’t shoot fish in a barrel and he needed his eldest to be good at something.
I had to kick the spokes to turn the handlebar hard right, then jigger them back out again so I could straighten the wheel. I crashed over the drainage ditch and slid on the worn soles of my boots over the sidewalk. I was deep in the shadow of a monolithic, grimy tenement— the kind that put me in mind of hollow- eyed immigrant children chained to beds by unscrupulous landlords so they won’t escape. They hired vampire guards in those kinds of hellholes. I shuddered and looked, suddenly, back at the street. Deserted. I think the hair on the back of my neck would have risen then, if it weren’t already smothered by the respectable starch of my shirt collar.
I walked closer to the crawlspace— too small to even be an alley— between the tenement and a former munitions ware house. A rat, startled by my approach, scrambled over a gray heap that was barely distinguishable from the other refuse and shot into the gutter by my bicycle. My eyes adjusted to the gloom. I could finally see the faint outline of the innocuous little hump that had so firmly caught my attention. It was covered in a child- sized peacoat that smelled of damp wool. Shaking— because by God there is no way to get used to this, no matter how long I’ve lived in this city— I pulled back the cloth. I saw a boy, with hair much redder than my own ochre- tinged brown. His skin was so pale beneath a shock of freckles that I knew what had happened even before I spotted the telltale punctures on his neck.
Excerpted from Moonshine: A Novel by Alaya Johnson.
Copyright 2010 by Alaya Johnson.
Published in May 2010 by Griffin/ St. Martin’s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.