When a strange and wild boy walks into her life, Tess is forced to confront a past she had long ago forgotten
Fourteen-year-old Tess can't remember the first ten years of her life—and if they were anything like her life now, she'd prefer that they stay forgotten. Since her mother's death, she and her disabled stepfather have lived without a phone, electricity, or even much food on the table. At school, her classmates think she's weird, but she's bigger and stronger than all of them. And at least she has music to keep her company.
When a mysterious stranger named Kamo shows up looking for his dad, he is convinced that Tess and her stepfather may have the answers he's been searching for. The more time she spends with Kamo, the more she realizes how much they have in common. Then she hears a song on the radio called “Secret Star”—a song so mesmerizing that every time she hears it, Tess's past comes bubbling up, and she knows she won't be able to keep it hidden for much longer . . .
|Publisher:||Open Road Media|
|Sold by:||Barnes & Noble|
|File size:||950 KB|
|Age Range:||12 - 14 Years|
About the Author
Nancy Springer is the award-winning author of more than fifty books, including the Enola Holmes and Rowan Hood series and a plethora of novels for all ages, spanning fantasy, mystery, magic realism, and more. She received the James Tiptree, Jr. Award for Larque on the Wing and the Edgar Award for her juvenile mysteries Toughing It and Looking for Jamie Bridger, and she has been nominated for numerous other honors. Springer currently lives in the Florida Panhandle, where she rescues feral cats and enjoys the vibrant wildlife of the wetlands.
Read an Excerpt
By Nancy Springer
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1997 Nancy Springer
All rights reserved.
Nobody tells you when you're going to meet the crossroads person. Nobody tells you when life is going to pick you up by the ankles. As far as Tess knew, it was just another April weekday and she was just weird Tess Mathis.
She was hiking home across country the way she usually did, because she didn't enjoy sitting alone on the school bus and she loved the creek country in the springtime. The brown butterflies with blue fringes were out, violets were pushing up, and Tess was playing music inside her head. So what if Daddy hadn't been able to pay the bill, and a man in gray coveralls had come and shut off the electricity, and Tess missed radio more than she missed having lights at night. Fourteen years old and she didn't have diddley—no money, no boobs, no boyfriend, no smiley faces on her report cards, no Walkman no stereo no MTV—but yes she still had music inside her, riffs and rhythms that belonged to no one else. Nothing and nobody could take that away.
So Tess stomped along in her old Red Wing work boots, humming, slapping and tapping out time with her chunky fingers on her thighs, not paying attention to anything—and she rounded a bend in the path at the bottom of Miller's cow pasture, under a big sycamore tree, and there was a tough-looking boy standing beside a boulder like he was waiting for her.
She stopped short. He stood there ten feet from her, and he wasn't a boy really, he was maybe eighteen years old, and he only had one eye. He wore a black eye patch over the place where his left one should have been, not a spy-movie eye patch but a homemade black-leather flap fastened to a red headband that didn't do a thing to keep his wild black hair in place. Tess saw scars on his face. A wide, stark mouth that did not smile. A single dark, narrow eye staring straight at her.
He stood there with his hands in the pockets of his black jeans like he just happened to be hanging around the creek bottom, but the way he held himself gave him away. His back and shoulders were airy straight, alert and waiting and ready to get him moving in any direction in an instant. Tess knew he was there for a reason.
She didn't smile any more than he did, or say a word—she was frightened. She had heard all the scary stories about what happened to girls who let themselves get caught alone in isolated places. Okay, she was big and strong—that was part of what made her weird, that she was the biggest, strongest girl in school. People might talk behind her back but they'd better not say anything to her face. If this guy tried anything she would fight him, and he was no taller than she was so she figured she had a chance, but—he looked so fierce— what if he had a knife? Tess felt her heart thumping and sweat wetting her palms. She started to back away.
His face didn't change, but he pulled his hands out of his pockets, spreading them empty in the air. "I wouldn't hurt anybody," he said, low-spoken.
Tess didn't necessarily believe what he said, but she liked his voice, gritty and soft. Sounds, their textures and cadences, meant a lot to her. Also, she had enough wrongheaded pride to make her stop backing away and stand still.
He said, "Tessali Rojahin?"
It was her real name, and it scared her worse than anything so far. She blurted out, "No!"
He just stood there with his hands gradually sinking downward, looking at her.
"No. Mathis," she said. "Tess Mathis."
"Okay." He started walking slowly toward her, but she stood still, because he did not seem threatening in the same way any longer. Still dangerous, but in a different way. "Tess. Your stepfather's name is Mathis—"
"He's not my stepfather!" He was her capital-D Daddy. They had never had the money to make it legal, so yes her name was Rojahin on her birth certificate and a few other stupid papers, but as far as Tess was concerned, Benson Mathis was her father.
The stranger boy stood still with his head skewed slightly so that his one eye could watch her. He made her think of a hunting cat, or a sleek black wolf, some sort of wild animal. The way he moved, the way he handled himself, was compact and sure yet shy, the way strong wild animals are shy. "Okay, your adoptive father," he said carefully, sniffing his way, trying to read her. "His name is Mathis."
She stood there without answering.
He said, "But a man named Rojahin—"
"No!" That name panicked her, and this time the fear sent her toward the scar-faced, one- eyed stranger rather than away from him—she just wanted to get past him and get home. She charged him, and he flung up one hand to try to stop her, or maybe to beg her.
"Please," he said, his voice even lower, grainy with what must have been emotion. "Please. I'm trying to find my father."
"Let me alone!" She shoved past him and ran up the pasture hill between rocks and little cedars, which are one of the few things cows won't eat. When she got to the top she had to stop to puff—Appalachian hills will do that to a person. Panting, she looked all around but didn't see anything except a few dirty white cows browsing along the edge of the woods between her and home. She could see in all directions, but the stranger was not in sight. Tess blew her breath out in a sigh, pretty sure that he was not following her.
Pretty sure that he was not trying to hurt her.
Please. I'm trying to find my father.
The hush in his voice, as much as the words themselves, echoed in her mind like a song. There was no Tess Mathis music beating like wings inside her now. Just those words.
But—she couldn't help him, even if she wanted to, because ... because there was something wrong. With her.
Calm down, Tess told herself, looking out on the shaggy old hills. She tried to remember what Daddy always told her, that she was normal in all the important ways—looks weren't all that important, no matter what certain mall-haired girls thought. So she was oversized and freaky-looking, pink faced, almost pale enough to be an albino, so what. Looks didn't matter and neither did being poor. Tess tried to remember that she was normal in the ways that counted, like having a heart, and knowing good from bad, and worshiping the Phillies during baseball season and the Pittsburgh Steelers the rest of the time. Normal.
Aside from the fact that there was one really strange thing about her: she did not remember anything before she was ten years old.
It was like she didn't have a childhood, because she just didn't remember. Not a thing. Nothing. Blank as a banker's hankie.CHAPTER 2
By the time Tess got home, she had organized her face enough so that she hoped Daddy wouldn't notice anything.
Home was just a cinder-block shack on a slab, like a cow pie with square corners plopped down on the far side of the woods the way people plop little houses sometimes in the country. The clear plastic stretched over the windows for insulation was ripped and made messy noises in the wind. There was more messy ripped plastic stapled over the old wooden screen door on the back, which stuck. When Tess muscled it open and got inside, Daddy was at the stove in his wheelchair, reaching up to stir something in a soup pot.
"Smells good." Tess took the spoon from him, because it's a lot easier for a standing-up person to stir. Daddy seldom complained, but Tess could tell that being in a wheelchair and trying to cook was a pain—Daddy's footrests banged against the stove, and he couldn't see what he was doing. "Yo! Pot pie!" Canned chicken broth with Daddy's hand- rolled homemade noodles swimming around in it, and why it was called pot pie was a mystery, the pie part if not the pot part, but it was yummy. Tess stirred some more, peering hopefully. "No meat?"
"Well, I tell ya, honey, I couldn't quite get Ernestine up to speed to knock off anything." Ernestine was his wheelchair. "Maybe next time I can let 'er rip down Sipe's hill and run over a chipmunk or something."
He was joking. No roadkill was eaten in the Mathis household. At least not yet.
Daddy sighed and said, "I could try Make Money Selling by Phone in Your Spare Time again."
"How would you get the phone put back in?" Tess laid a folded dish towel on the plastic tablecloth and set the pot on it. "Anyway, you made, what, about a penny an hour?" She glanced at him fondly. Daddy had not been a happy telemarketer; he was too nice to talk people into buying junk they didn't want or need. And other than that, there wasn't really much Daddy could do, living way out in the country. Most days he just made his rounds on the roads in his wheelchair. The egg farm put aside cracked eggs for him, and the sexton at the little white shingle-sided crossroads church saved him candle stubs, and old Mrs. Miller next door gave him sugar cookies whenever she baked.
Tess brought a couple of plates from the clutter of dishes sitting on the counter—Daddy couldn't reach things in cupboards—and Daddy wheeled himself up to his place at the table, and the two of them sat and ate. The pot pie was pretty good for something that's really just boiled-up flour held together by an egg and a little Crisco.
"Not bad for an old guy's cooking," Tess teased.
But she knew she'd feel hungry again in half an hour. It wasn't enough to eat. And the food stamps had run out way before the end of the month, as usual. God only knew what there would be to eat tomorrow, especially if Mrs. Miller's lumbago didn't let her get to the kitchen or the chickens forgot to crack some eggs or Ernestine didn't kill a chipmunk.
"Daddy," Tess said, looking down at her empty plate, "school stinks. Really. I'm not learning a thing."
"If you would bring a book home once in a while—"
"It wouldn't make any difference." To Tess, school was just the place where she went to be dumb. "I want to quit. You could say you're home schooling me. I could get a job." So we can eat, she was thinking, and Daddy knew it.
"It's not that simple. They got all kinds of requirements for home schooling."
"So we tell them something. Stall them. When I'm sixteen, I can quit."
"You do that, you'll end up regretting it. You drop out, you'll get noplace, end up living in a dump like me."
Tess had heard this before, and it didn't mean a thing to her. Dump? But she liked coming home to this house. Everything was kind of yellowish, paneling and flowered curtains and secondhand furniture, but what did that matter? Her mother's collectible plates hung on the kitchen wall, Elvis and sad-eyed puppies and cute Amish kids. Tess couldn't remember her mother but she could look at the plates. Her daddy's old stuff, bowling trophies and framed military papers, sat on a shelf in the other room. Her radio was in her bedroom. This was home.
She said, "It's not a dump."
"The heck it's not. Look at me. At my age—"
"It's not your fault you hurt your back."
"I was still going noplace. Busting my ass for the boss man's smart lip and a few dollars. That's why I'm in the fix I'm in, because I got no education. You just stay in school, Tessie. Get your diploma."
The words were worn as smooth as creek stones from being said over and over. They had been said almost every suppertime since the electricity was shut off.
This time, though, suddenly Tess wanted to say new words. Daddy, there was this stranger down at the bottom of Miller's pasture, asking—
She felt the watery-awful panic for even thinking it. Always the panic when she thought of asking questions. A few times when she was younger she had asked Daddy about her father or her mother, and his face had gone gray as old chicken bones, and he had given her short answers. Marcus Rojahin was her mother's first husband. Daddy was her mother's second husband. Her mother was dead. He missed her. And that was it. That was all she knew.
That was all she was going to know, because she'd stopped asking questions. It hurt him too much.
She made herself look at him sitting across from her—just an ordinary going-bald middle- aged guy, aside from the strong arms and shoulders due to wrestling with Ernestine. He had brownish hair turning gray, what was left of it. Brownish eyes flecked with gray like the hair. Extra chin. Extra pounds around the middle from eating dough and eggs instead of decent food. He didn't look a thing like her.
But he was still her Daddy. The one person in the world who cared about her. She would never say a word to him about the stranger boy with his scarred face and his one eye and his black eye patch and his wild black hair. Daddy had enough to worry about.
"Tess." He had noticed her looking at him, and he was smiling back at her. "Hey. You, me, chicken pot pie—it doesn't get any better than this." Making fun of the beer ad.
Suddenly everything was all right. She grinned and started drumming her fingers on the edge of the table.
"All right! It does get better. Give us some music, Tess!"
She grabbed a spoon and got the basic frame going, eight quick steady beats to a bar, on her water glass. Inside the frame her other hand and both her big work-booted feet played around with the twos and fours, thumping out boogie-rock tempo on the floor, the table, the plastic scrub bucket, the big old tins with cereal boxes crammed into them so ants wouldn't get the corn flakes. Her arms and legs were reaching and pumping and whacking in all directions, her butt started rocking on the chair, and Daddy was bouncing around like she was. There they sat like a pair of nuts, both chair-dancing, Tess and her Daddy.
It didn't get any better than this.
Tess's bed was a studio couch somebody had wanted to get rid of, narrow and lumpy. Usually she lay and let her mind drift until she got comfortable enough to sleep, but that night she went to sleep right away because she didn't want to think.
The next thing she knew she was dreaming about the damn disappearing walls. They were just her bedroom walls, which was what made it so scary, because it was almost as if she were still awake and lying there looking at the Far Side poster Daddy had got her last Christmas and her Def Leppard poster with the one-armed drummer and her endangered species poster from school, but—nothing had happened, yet Tess knew to the marrow of her scared bones that just beyond the faded blue paint the worst thing in the world was on the prowl. It was walled in and it knew her name was Rojahin, it was going to get out and it was going to get her—and then the walls were starting to move. They rippled. They turned thin, like a curtain, and soon she would see the—thing she wasn't supposed to see, she didn't want to see—
She had to wake up, she had to wake up! She woke up.
Then she lay in her bed in the dark thinking damn. It had been awhile since she'd had one of her stupid nightmares—why had they started up again? But it didn't matter. Tess knew what to do. She stretched, then settled down with her hands behind her head, reaching for the metal studio couch frame, and she tapped, doing flams and paradiddles, getting a rhythm going. And she hummed along with it. The music started cooking inside her head, and once that happened she was safe. Her music was what kept her sane, kept her from thinking too much about things. About anything.
The next day instead of hiking home from school Tess hiked to the IGA at Hinkles Corner to see if she could get a job. And she lucked out—some woman who wrapped produce had quit in a huff that day. Tess filled out some forms and lied about her age, said she was sixteen, so she could work more hours. She was big enough; they believed her. A woman named Jonna showed her the stockroom and her locker and told her she could start the next day, Saturday.
When she walked out the back door from the stockroom, feeling slightly dazed, there in the gravelly delivery lot stood the stranger boy, headband and homemade eye patch and all, waiting for her by the Dumpster.
Tess wasn't afraid of him this time, just heartily annoyed to see him there because things had been going so well for a minute. She strode up to him. "You've been watching me!" she accused, leaning close to his scarred face. "Following me."
"Only because I have to." His voice stayed soft and low.
"I told you to let me alone."
He lifted his left hand in a kind of appeal, and she noticed something: that hand was stiff and almost useless, as if it had been mangled. "Look, Tess," he said, gently for such a hard-looking person, "I was stupid, I spooked you. Let me explain why I'm here. Please."
Excerpted from Secret Star by Nancy Springer. Copyright © 1997 Nancy Springer. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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