Less Than Perfect by Kelly Jensen
Mikayla's read every book in her collection of post-apocalyptic novels at least twice. She thinks she's prepared for aliens taking over Earth. She's not.
Nor is she prepared for the attention of a good-looking refugee named Reg.
All Mikayla and Reg want is a safe place to see out the end of the world, hidden away from the aliens that call themselves The People, but cities of the depopulated United States not infested with The People are rife with gangs, the detritus of civilization and disease.
On a mission to restock their supplies, Mikayla and Reg are captured by The People and prepared for the procedure that will make them perfect, but no longer quite human. In order to escape, they need to rely on each other...if Mikayla can trust a man who seems too good to be true.
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About the Author
Kelly Jensen lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and daughter. When she's not busy being a mom, Kelly spends her time volunteering at the local library, playing video games, and studying Kiryoku, a martial art combining Shotokan, Aikido, and Tang Soo Do.
Less Than Perfect is her first book.
Read an Excerpt
Reading a medical text won't make you a surgeon, but reading a cookbook will help you make a meal. It's a relative thing, I suppose, how we can prepare for some things, but have to train for others — experience the feel of a scalpel in our fingers (not me, I faint at the sight of my own blood), see how the egg whites stiffen and peak beneath a whisk.
When it comes to aliens, though, particularly the sort that invade (another relative term), I had sort of considered myself an expert because I'd read a lot about them.
A sound interrupted my thoughts. I tilted my head to the side, a lock of red hair whispering across paper.
I jerked around and swallowed a squeal as Hiram's distinct outline, including a long-barreled gun, moved through the door. His light step had not been the sound I heard.
"Something's coming up the road. Quick," he said.
A low rumble, separate from the illusive quiet of the farm, tickled my ears again. I jumped off the bed, hissing as my journal followed, dangling from my hair. A panicked jerk parted the journal from my hair and at least one strand from my head. I thrust my most precious possession, that notebook, into the backpack sitting at the foot of the bed.
We all kept packs ready. The end of the world had turned us all into Girl and Boy Scouts; we were prepared. I slung the straps over my shoulders and slid my feet into boots. Then bent to collect my second-most-precious possession: a box of books.
Hiram was a man of few words, but I clearly heard his intent.
"I'll carry it."
"They won't be looking for books."
They wouldn't. What remained of the human population of our planet probably wouldn't but, damn it, I loved these books, useless as they were.
"Box isn't heavy, I'll be fine." My arms already hurt.
We didn't have time to argue. He turned, his large, square form filling the doorway again before he ducked back into the hallway. I dithered. Two steps put me at the door, another one pulled me back into the room. The "something" coming up the road became the obvious roar of engines. Swallowing a whine, I knelt down and pushed the box under the bed, then leaped up and followed Hiram down the hall. Beth, Hiram's mother and master of our current domain — Happy Valley Orchards — met us at the entrance to the cellar.
I had mixed feelings about stuffing ourselves into a hole. If found, we would be, well, stuck in a hole. When the fourth member of our party melted out of the darkness, my feelings mixed a little further. Tall, dark, and good-looking in an unassuming way that just made him even more attractive, Reg inspired giddiness best left in the old world.
He gestured toward the open hatch.
The rumble of the approaching cars had the ominous feel of a thunderstorm. Anticipation prickled the back of my neck. After glancing over my shoulder, I edged toward the black hole in the pantry floor ... and imagined the intruders discovering my treasure, my box of books, and flinging them around. Pulling covers off. Tossing them into a fire....
My books. I turned and ran back through the kitchen.
"Mikayla!" Hiram called after me.
"I'll be right back!"
My shoulder connected with the doorframe as I swung into my bedroom and pain shot down my arm. Undeterred, I continued to the bed and dropped to my hands and knees. The roar of engines rattled the window and brakes squealed. I tugged at the box. Car doors creaked open, boots crunched the gravel of the drive.
"C'mon, damn y —"
My furious whisper ended with me rolling backward, a piece of torn cardboard in my hand.
Footsteps thudded across the front porch and the screen door screeched. Mentally mapping the distance back to the cellar, I knew I wouldn't make it back, box or not. Rocking forward again, I dove beneath the bed got caught halfway as my backpack scrunched up against the frame. I bit my lip to keep from whining, pulled my arms out of the straps, and scooted all the way under just as boots pounded down the hall.
I was trapped under the bed with a box of books while my pack with a meager supply of survival gear lay slumped just beyond reach. I had abandoned the safety of the cellar for a box of books. Deep breaths stirring the dust bunnies, I tried to calm down, not cough, and think rationally.
The kitchen door banged and voices rose and fell. I heard one word out of every five.
"Here ... pie ... far ... chickens."
Did they know we were here? They'd found the pie, I got that part. Far? Chickens?
A faint squawk and second bang of the kitchen door provided a clue. They had found the chicken coop.
Footsteps traced the hall outside my bedroom again, paused at the door, and scuffed inside. Tucking my arm around the box of books, I held my breath and resisted the urge to close my eyes.
I should have closed my eyes.
Knees dropped to the floor beside the bed and a face swung into view. A woman with sallow skin and limp hair intent on escaping the wrap of a filthy bandanna. She was human; not clean and not perfect. She was still dangerous. Swallowing a scream, I met her dark gaze. Maybe if I remained perfectly still she'd think —
"Well, well. What do we have here?"
She scanned the length of the floor under the bed as if to check the truth of my statement then asked, "What's in the box?"
Where I had failed, she succeeded. After hooking a hand into the ripped corner, she dragged the box out, peered inside, and snorted before dropping back down to look at me. I had taken the opportunity to shuffle backward, toward the other side of the bed. She moved around to the foot, cutting off my escape.
"Where is everyone else?"
"It's only me," I said, knowing she wouldn't believe me, but unwilling to give up the others.
"Mm-hmm. Are they in the house, or out back somewhere?" "It's just me," I insisted.
I had to get out from under the bed. I scooted back again, aiming for the far corner.
"It's a nice setup you have here," the woman noted in a conversational tone as she shadowed my movements. "Must be a lot of work. Maybe you need some folks to help you out."
Did she mean Beth and Hiram and Reg? Or her friends, the folks clomping around the kitchen and pantry in their heavy boots?
"I'm not going to tell you anything," I said. I might be fool, but I would act like I was a brave one.
"Just tell me how many you are and I'll leave you here in your cozy hideout."
"They have guns."
She had a ready reply. "So do we."
"They're in the shed behind the chicken coop." I let the words come out in a rush, tumbling and breathless, which wasn't that hard.
"Let's go check that out, then." The woman reached behind her, tugged at her belt and produced a gun.
I had no special skills. I did not study self-defense in my spare time. I'd never handled a gun. When not poring over engineering plans, I read books about the end of the world. I never expected to live out those stories, though. Become a gun-toting survivalist. So, at gunpoint, I edged out from under the bed and timidly raised my hands. My plan included leading her out to the chicken coop. From there, I thought I might be able to duck into the barn ... or something.
A dark figure fell through the door, knocking the woman forward. She folded with a soft exhalation. The gun clattered to the floor, and I kicked it under the bed. Then I looked up and sucked in a breath. Reg had come to rescue me.
The woman remained still on the floor.
"Is she dead?"
"No." Reg waved at the door. "Come on."
I cast a quick look at my box of books, then at my pack, both on the far side of the bed, and then followed without stopping for either. That would be my punishment, I decided. I'd have to leave the farmhouse without either, depend on the others — whom I had endangered with my stupid sentimentality.
We didn't leave the house. Moving quickly but quietly, we ran to the kitchen, ducked around the first corner and skidded into the pantry.
Reg tapped on the cellar hatch three times and said, "It's Reg and Mikayla."
The hatch popped up and I fell feet first down the ladder. Hiram caught me and handed me off to Beth. Reg thumped to the soft, earthen floor, and the cellar door banged shut. Hiram threw the bolt and handed Reg a gun before hoisting another, pointing the long barrel toward the dark panel of the hatch.
A thin shaft of sunlight fell through the narrow window set between the top of the wall and the low ceiling. Though the shortest member of our group, I felt compressed. Hiram had to duck his head, and Reg's dark hair seemed to blend with the dusk, though he remained straight-backed. Beth's softer frame filled a more comforting space.
"I didn't tell them you were here," I said. It seemed important I communicate that fact. Despite going back for a box of books, I had not betrayed my friends.
Beth put an arm around my shoulders and squeezed tight. I tucked my arm around her waist and squeezed back.
"They know we're here somewhere," Hiram said.
"Let's hope they're more interested in food than ..."
We all silently filled in the gap left by Beth. My imaginings, fueled by my box of useless books, were probably a little more gruesome and fantastic than the others.
Not many found the long road to Happy Valley Orchards; the farm enjoyed the cover of three separate hills. Smoke from the woodburning stove in the kitchen occasionally gained attention. It had caught mine two months ago, Reg's six weeks after that. We had both approached on foot, me more pathetically than the tall man standing beneath the cellar hatch. I knew what I had been looking for: sanctuary, a place to wait out the storm. I didn't know if I could outlast this storm, though — the end of the world as I knew it. I also didn't know what Reg was looking for. I'd yet to pluck the courage to stand in the long, dark shadow he cast for long enough to do more than admire his physique.
Now that he'd risked himself to pull me out of harm's way, I was more interested in his story. But my questions would have to wait.
Footsteps advanced into the pantry and Reg let the rifle drop from shoulder to hands, muzzle pointed toward the square of darkness. A rug hid the seam of the hatch, one of those rubber-backed things usually found in kitchens and pantries. Had our rushed entry left it askew or rippled?
Hiram moved closer to Reg and the pair stared at the hatch until the footsteps receded.
Beth's hand found mine and we shared an unabashed squeeze. Above, voices rose discordantly, one definitely female. Boots stomped into the pantry again. We heard the sound of jars leaving shelves. One dropped to the floor with a crash and I jumped. Another crash in the kitchen had Beth twitching next to me. Then voices drifted through the floor.
"They're not in the shed behind the chicken coop."
"Couldn't have gone far — that pie was still hot. You look in the attic?"
"Nothing up there."
"Find the cellar then, these old places always have one."
"Why? We have what we want."
Below, we all drew in a simultaneous breath and held it. I looked at Beth only to find her gaze already fixed on me.
"I don't like surprises."
Did anyone, really?
The scrape of jars and exchange of voices stopped. Something tapped the floor. Reg and Hiram stepped back, away from the cellar door, and I tried not to squeal, scream, or breathe. My throat was so tight, any movement of air would produce a sound. I would not have guessed I could actually hear a rug peel back, but I could.
The cellar door rattled as one of the men thumped it. "If you're down there, then you know we got you cornered."
Yep, stuck in a hole, which turned out to be only marginally less frightening than being caught under a bed.
"We don't want any trouble. Just gonna take this food and get away."
Why? The box of postapocalyptic fiction upstairs had taught me one key thing about the end of the world: civilization tended to break down pretty quickly. People didn't stop by to borrow a cup of sugar after the world ended. They pillaged and raped, and not always in that order. The idea that any group might stumble upon Beth's farmhouse and not want to stay awhile, make use of all its amenities, made no sense.
Of course, on the other side of the equation, they had to expect there was at least one gun pointing at the floor beneath their boots. I'd told them we had guns. Maybe the lack of splintered wood and disintegrated toes made a statement of a sort.
The rug flopped back over the hatch and we all deflated. Even in the dim light, I could see both men shrink a little as they took a breath and allowed their shoulders and backs to round. A short while later, the footsteps receded, engines turned over, and gravel spun from tires. The sound of the two cars took a long time to dwindle.
"You folks ever think about getting a dog?" Reg asked.
Hiram offered a gruff reply. "We had one. Visitors, before Mikayla, shot it."
Reg didn't ask why they hadn't replaced the dog. Pet stores had gone the way of polite invitation.
I looked at Reg and wondered how to thank him for coming to my rescue. A handful of words felt inadequate for the risk he'd taken. Before I could open my mouth, Hiram swung round to face me.
"Tell me you did not go back for that box of books," he said.
I pressed my lips together as shame colored my cheeks.
Beth moved up behind me. "Oh, leave her alone, Hiram. No harm done."
Hiram glanced at his mother, then back at me. He shook his head and laid a hand on my shoulder. "You're more important than a box of old paperbacks, Mikayla. Remember that next time, okay?" Swallowing over one of those annoying lumps, I nodded. Then I chanced a quick peek at Reg and squeaked out a quick, "Thanks."
He answered with a brusque nod, but it seemed he lacked words rather than patience. It had been a trying afternoon.
We left the cellar and set about cleaning up.
I went to get my pack. Now that the pantry had been cleared out, we had to take stock of what we had left. I picked up the box of books and carried those to the kitchen as well. I had some vague notion of putting them outside the back door, or dropping them into the cellar. Maybe I could offer them as kindling for the stove Hiram had retrofitted into the kitchen.
About half an hour before sunset, we were sitting in the kitchen gathered around hot cups of something, making weak jokes about how it would be a lean winter.
"Shh." Hiram held up a hand and tilted his head in a listening pose.
My cup of tea paused halfway to my lips.
Was that the wind leaning against the rafters or —
The door banged open and two men managed to shoulder through, guns pointed directly at the table.
"Leave that right there and you get to keep your head," the first said to Hiram, words punctuated by a jerk of his gun at the rifle leaning against the table next to Hiram's outstretched hand.
More of them squashed through the door, filling half of the kitchen. Six of them, and they all had guns. I noted the woman from before and the purpling bruise on her temple. My teacup dropped from numb fingers and a gun swung in my direction. Surprisingly, the scream inhabiting my throat did not claw its way out. The lump of it blocked my windpipe and all I could do was swallow painfully.
The end of that same gun found each of us in turn. "I don't want any trouble."
"Then you'd best head back out the way you came," Hiram said.
How could he sound so reasonable?
Reg twitched toward one of the guns, the barest movement, but we all saw it.
"Don't even think about it," one of the intruders said.
Bit late for that. We were all thinking it.
More gun-waving reordered our thoughts and then their spokesman moved his gun up and down in a definitive manner.
"Up, all of you. Up and out. You don't live here anymore."
A weird flickering sensation crawled across my chest and down my arms. My stomach had acquired an odd sort of pulse. I didn't dare look at one of the guns leaning against the table; I didn't want to get shot.
Our packs were still in the kitchen. Maybe, subconsciously, we had expected this. Or maybe we had just been too busy to put them away. Whatever the reason, they were there.
Hiram pointed to the neat row. "Can we take our packs?"
The men conferred a moment, a series of grunts and nods, and then one of them shouldered his gun and collected the packs.
Excerpted from "Less Than Perfect"
Copyright © 2013 Kelly Jensen.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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