|Publisher:||Intrigue Publishing LLC|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)|
|Age Range:||12 - 18 Years|
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By A.L. Kaplan
Intrigue Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2017 A.L. Kaplan
All rights reserved.
"Hurry. The ceremony's gonna start soon." The dark-skinned girl tugged her mother through the town square.
A hard lump formed in Tatiana's throat as she watched them. She'd give anything to spend time with her mama again, but the Cataclysm had ripped that possibility away. The teenager bounced on the balls of her feet and craned her neck to see over the crowd. Her hand waved for her mother to catch up.
"Clear Sky Day isn't going anywhere," said the mother.
"But, Mom," the girl's voice rose in pitch. "I want to get a good spot."
"All right, all right. You can go on ahead, but keep your wits about you. You've heard the rumors."
"I will. I promise."
She pecked her mother's cheek and ran off. The woman smiled, but her gaze darted across the town square as if expecting an imminent attack. Already taut knuckles tightened their grip on her cloth shopping bag. Worry lines creased her face. Still scanning the merchants and shoppers, she hurried to follow her daughter.
Tears stung Tatiana's eyes as the two vanished into the crowd. No one had worried about her since the Cataclysm eight years ago. She pushed her feelings back, something she wished she could do with those around her. A maelstrom of emotions bombarded her from the crowd: excitement, happiness, fear, joy, anger. Even after years of struggle to keep them out, other people's strong emotions still leaked into her mind like a winter's chill. Her empathy had its uses, like knowing who was too angry to approach, but sometimes the feelings were so overwhelming that she wanted to run off and hide.
A pair of guards strutted by, and Tatiana made herself as inconspicuous as possible. Unlike the people who had watched Atherton's walls during her last visit to town four years earlier, they 'felt' cruel. Hired thugs doing a job. Not citizens guarding their homes. One of them, a dirty-looking man with greasy hair and a half-buttoned uniform, grabbed a loaf of bread off a cart without pausing. The merchant said nothing, but Tatiana saw the muscles in her jaw twitch.
An old man with clothes as worn and patched as Tatiana's glared at the guard. "Damn mercenaries. They think they own this town."
His companion nudged him. "Shh, they'll hear you. Besides, their boss already does own most of Atherton. Just be glad they haven't come after us."
The old man wrinkled his nose. "We should leave."
"And go where, Pops? Long Island's under water. Most of New Jersey is a ghost town. I know northern Kentucky isn't your idea of home, but we have family here."
"Humph. There should be an American flag flying in this square."
"Pops, it's time to accept there is no more USA. Cataclysm killed it."
The voices faded as they walked away. Tatiana held Fifi close, adjusting the sling that held the tiny white poodle. Fifi was more than capable of taking care of herself now, but her size and coloration drew too much attention. It was better she remained hidden.
"Look, they're coming!"
A procession of cloaked figures exited a large white building to the slow, rhythmic beat of a drum, like a death march. The figures moved toward the center of the town square where a tall pole stood shrouded in gray cloth.
Tatiana watched from a distance, away from the milling crowd, knowing what would transpire. She'd seen similar Clear Sky Day ceremonies in other towns. Ten ribbons wove around the pole, each representing one of the ten months the sun had been blocked after the Cataclysm. Still in their gray cloaks, the dancers began to step around the pole, unweaving the ribbons as the drums intensified their rhythm. The crowd began to clap and stomp their feet to the tempo, spurring the dancers to pick up their pace. Bit by bit the ribbons came unwound until the cloth on top fell free, revealing a gold-painted sun sculpture. At the same time, the dancers tossed off their cloaks. Waves of joy rode on the crowd's roar as the noonday sun glinted on its land-bound model.
Tatiana closed her eyes, fighting back tears. Clear Sky Day meant different things to different people. It was a rebirth of life, as miraculous as a woman's womb. But for Tatiana and others, it also meant the beginning of isolation, fear, and loneliness.
A voice rang out right next to Tatiana. "The Day of Reckoning destroyed our old world eight years ago. The miracle of Clear Sky Day gave birth to a new one. Celebrate our renewal with a Clear Sky Day sweet."
The man pressed a sticky egg-shaped confection into Tatiana's hand before she could react, then continued dispensing treats through the crowd. Her chest tightened. It wasn't the blue pants or plain cotton shirt he wore that made Tatiana's breath catch. She ducked behind a tree. Her vision blurred, but the neatly painted yellow and orange star on the man's forehead was already etched in her mind. She'd seen more of that brand on both men and women over the last few years. Would He be with them? Would He be right behind her, that haunting shadow she'd dodged for nearly four years?
A warm wet tongue touched her hand, soothing her mind. The panic withdrew. Tatiana glanced down. She didn't remember sticking her hand into Fifi's sling. It used to be Tatiana calming and caring for the sickly pup, but that was a long time ago. Honey from the sweet oozed between the fingers of her other hand, crushed and forgotten. She stuffed it into the sling for Fifi. One of them should enjoy it, and her stomach was too knotted to eat.
Hands clasped her shoulders as she stepped away from the tree. A body pressed against her back, a hard bulge making clear both gender and desire. One filthy arm slipped across her chest and held her tight. Another hand slid down her side and began to claw at her skirt.
"You're a sweet little thing. My kinda Clear Sky Day treat."
His words slurred together and the smell of booze was seconded by that of old sweat. Images again blurred Tatiana's vision, memories that refused to die. Memories that made her stomach twist. She kicked back and caught the man in the knee, loosening his grip enough for her to slip out of his meaty grasp and turn. Tatiana expected to face a drunken townsperson. Instead she found herself face to face with a guard in a stain-splattered dusty-green uniform. Her throat tightened as she backed away. The man's face flushed, and he teetered for a moment, then he lunged.
Tatiana dodged, bumping into a passerby. People looked and hurried away. No one intervened. She clutched Fifi tightly, hoping no one could hear the dog's growing snarl. Energy tingled her fingers, and she felt Fifi tremble beneath her hands.
"What the hell do you think you're doing, soldier?"
The newcomer, a scar-faced man with a metal star on his sleeveless uniform, smashed his fist into the drunken guard's head with cold efficiency. The eagle tattoo on his bulging right bicep flexed as he bent down and whispered in the drunk's ear. Sun glinted off his shaved head.
At a flick of his hand, two guards grabbed the drunk and dragged him off. People around them scurried away, eyes averted. The scar-faced guard vanished. Tatiana tried to still her trembling hands. It wasn't too late to flee this place.
So much had changed in this town since her last visit, on a cold November day four years ago. The small northern Kentucky town had been just a few blocks of patched-up buildings and farms then. Now it bustled, nearly a mile wide, not counting the fields. It was bigger, prospering, yet something didn't feel right.
Tatiana's knowledge of wild foods, a legacy from her parents had allowed her to forage successfully after the Cataclysm. But Fifi had been sick and needed meat, so in desperation, Tatiana had ventured into Atherton to beg door to door. Fourteen years old, ragged, bruised, and barely hanging on. Only the need to help Fifi had kept her going when she was refused aid. One door hadn't closed.
People jostled around Tatiana as she moved out of the tree-lined market square toward the person who had restored her faith in humanity. It was long past time to repay him. She kept her eyes downcast, hoping no one would notice her. If only she could throw her shawl over her head, but the summer's heat dissuaded that idea. Instead, the threadbare cloth was tied around her waist. Her hand slipped unconsciously into one of the deep pockets of her dress to finger the small gold coin hidden there. Flashing lots of gold wasn't a smart idea, so she had taken only one coin from the cache she had discovered years back. The rest she left to slow down the man who followed her. Always her intent had been to repay the man who had given her that small can of food. This was the first chance she'd had to return since the riots had ended. Hopefully it was safe to stay for a short while.
She slipped into the shadows between two buildings across the street from her destination and closed her eyes until the fear subsided. Pleasant thoughts filled her mind, like the day she first met Gareth in his cluttered store and bar. Lit only by candlelight, it had felt like walking into a warehouse, a blessedly warm warehouse. Even then he reminded her of her papa. If only she could have stayed.
Would he remember her? Four years was a long time to recollect one young beggar girl. Tatiana brushed the wrinkles from her patchwork dress and ran her fingers through her long raven mane. Only the sign outside the brick building where she had once been offered food had changed. Gareth's Odd Shop and Bar now read Gareth's Tavern. To the left stood a new addition proclaiming itself Gareth's Store. The two-story structure was wider than the brick building and stood in what had been an abandoned lot.
A smile crept across her face as she watched people go in and out of Gareth's store. It was good to see his business flourish. Groups of raucous Clear Sky Day revelers entered the tavern. Tatiana didn't like crowds, especially rowdy ones, but she'd been drawn to today's celebration. Such a large business couldn't be run by one man alone. She had hoped to ask for a job but wasn't sure if he would need more help or even want it.
Tatiana took a deep breath to calm her nerves as the last of his customers left the store, then hurried across the street, entering with the sun setting behind her. A lantern flickered on the counter. Gareth looked up as the bell above the door jingled and reached for the shotgun on his back with the ease of a warrior. He squinted with the sun's glare in his eyes.
"Sorry, but we're closing for the Clear Sky Day celebration. You'll have to come back tomorrow."
Tatiana paused. Had she waited too long? Gareth sounded tense, as if expecting trouble. A well-trimmed beard covered his face, and his hair looked a touch grayer than she remembered. She continued forward into the light, noting his grip tighten on the gun. His mouth parted in surprise as she came closer and his eyes widened with recognition.
"You came back."
"To thank you and pay you back for your kindness," Tatiana pulled the gold coin from her pocket and held it out. "The food you gave us kept us alive. We are indebted to you."
"It was only a tiny can of dog food. I ... I didn't expect to see you again."
Tatiana lowered her eyes, confused by the shy emotions welling up inside her. "It was enough to give us strength to find more food. I promised to pay you back."
"Yes, you did," said Gareth. He took the coin without looking at it and placed it on the counter next to the lamp. "But, well ... these days ... It's good to see you," he said at last. "I never asked your name."
Tatiana's voice dropped to a whisper. "My name is Tatiana, Tatiana Lenusy. I'm looking for work. All I ask in return is a place to sleep inside and a little food to eat."
Gareth's hand gently lifted her chin until their eyes met. "I don't know where you've been or how you survived these past four years, but you are welcome to stay."
"Fifi, too?" she asked, a little fearfully. Not everyone liked dogs.
Fifi poked her small white muzzle out of the sling. A second later an equally petite fuzzy head and two delicate white paws followed. Tatiana scooped the tiny creature into her hands and held her up for Gareth to see. The dog's fur gleamed like freshly fallen snow in the sun. Fifi stood on Tatiana's hand with one paw raised and gave Gareth a pathetic, pleading look.
Gareth scratched his head and stifled a laugh. His brows rose with a mixture of wonder and skepticism. "Didn't think that pup would live. Looks kind of fragile."
Tatiana smiled and the dog's tail fluttered. They were used to that kind of reaction. "She survived because of your kindness. Fifi's really no bother and eats very little. She's always clean and does tricks as well. Perhaps she can entertain your customers."
"I'd like to hear what you and Fifi have been up to," he said. "And why you were running. You can tell me all about it once you're settled in."
Relief flooded Tatiana. "Thank you, sir."
"Oh, don't thank me yet, Tatiana, and call me Gareth. There are some rules you should know about first. No private business is allowed with the customers and no visitors in the sleeping quarters. Unless you're cleaning or delivering food or messages, the guest rooms are off limits. I'm not running a brothel here. Treat every customer with respect. No foul language, absolutely no drugs, and keep yourself clean. Sabrina has seniority and assigns daily chores. Everyone takes a turn working the generator each night. Stealing or cheating gets you thrown out. No second chances. Do you understand?"
"Yes, I understand,"
"Good, go back there." Gareth pointed to a door at the back of the room just as a nineteen-year-old woman poked her head in. Wavy red hair framed her fair skin and a frown creased her face.
"Gareth," she said with an exasperated southern drawl. "Your nephew's here and he's already drunk."
Gareth mumbled under his breath. "He hitting on you again, Bobby Sue?"
"Like a baseball bat."
Gareth let air hiss from his mouth. He closed his eyes. His voice sounded strained. "I'll be right there. Send one of the others in for now and help Cook in the kitchen."
"Thanks, Gareth. I'll let Sabrina know."
"Bobby Sue, I'd like you to meet Tatiana. She'll be working here. Point her in Sabrina's direction for me."
"Welcome to Gareth's place, Tatiana," said Bobby Sue. A warm inviting smile filled her freckled face. "That's the smallest little thing I've seen short of a newborn kitten," she said, pointing at Fifi, before wiping her hand on the apron that covered her calf-length skirt.
"Her name is Fifi," said Tatiana, taking the offered hand. Fifi's tail beat rapidly.
"Well, welcome to Fifi as well. Y'all just follow me."
"Tatiana," said Gareth, "tell Sabrina you're the new hire and to find you a place to sleep and clean clothes to wear."
Tatiana followed Bobby Sue into a small sitting room.
"Y'all new to Atherton?"
"Yes," whispered Tatiana. "We arrived today." She left out the part about sneaking into town before dawn so she wouldn't have to deal with the creepy-looking guards at the gates.
"I've been here about two years now. It's a pretty fine place." Bobby Sue frowned. "Most of it anyway. Stay away from the west side of town, especially to the south. That's where Mako and his goons hang out. Rough neighborhood. Some of those bastards tried to drag me into his brothel last year."
A chill ran down Tatiana's back. Memories haunted her, faces, laughing, jeering. "Who's Mako?" she asked, careful to keep her voice neutral.
Bobby Sue's face wrinkled as if she were sucking on a sour fruit. "Mayor Mako Scaffeld. That slime moved into town a little over a year ago. Turned his house into a brothel and sweet-talked his way onto the town council. Frankly, I don't know how he got elected mayor. You know Gareth pulled this whole town together after things fell apart. He started that council. Used to head it up before Mako. Now we have all sorts of troublemakers runnin' around, drugs, and some rough-necked mercenary runnin' the militia. I swear it's not safe to go out after dark anymore.
"Anyway, enough gloomy talk. It's almost time for evenin' assignments so y'all better hustle up those stairs and to the right. Sabrina always checks the linens this time of day. You can't miss her. Oh, and you better hide that cute critter for now. Sabrina has a nasty temper and hates dogs. I think she's scared of them or somethin'."
"Do you want me to tell her about Gareth's nephew?"
"Danged. I almost forgot 'bout that with all our chit-chatting. Yes, please tell her."
Bobby Sue dashed off, leaving Tatiana by the stairway door. She placed a hand on the knob and took a deep breath. Memories of the Cataclysm flashed through her mind and her palms began to sweat — a giant ball of fire across the sky, massive floods and earthquakes.
Excerpted from Star Touched by A.L. Kaplan. Copyright © 2017 A.L. Kaplan. Excerpted by permission of Intrigue Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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