Authors: Leigh Talbert Moore
Tags: #Love, #Romantic, #Survival, #Small Town, #Paranormal, #Suspense, #Adventure, #action, #female protagonist
Behind the Stars
, Vol. 3)
By Leigh Talbert Moore
This is a work of fiction. Similarities to real people, places, or events are entirely coincidental.
First edition. November 23, 2014.
Copyright © 2014 Leigh Talbert Moore.
Written by Leigh Talbert Moore.
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
y mamma died when I was nine.
It wasn’t anything sudden like a car crash or drawn out like cancer. If it had been, I might’ve paid better attention. As it is, I don’t have a real strong memory of her last days.
She’d been coughing a lot, but everybody coughed a lot in the winter, when the weather finally got colder, and we all started pulling out dusty blankets and barely used sweaters.
The last time I heard her voice, she said, “Prentiss, be a good girl and watch TV while Mamma naps.”
Braxton used to play with me when I was little, but when he turned fifteen, he discovered Lisa Magee, Flora’s big sister. He decided chasing her was better than chasing me. Lisa let him catch her, and looking back, I supposed she let him do more than that.
Pneumonia took my mamma’s life.
It was such an old-fashioned way to die, it seemed to fit her. She was always interested in old things and antiques. Not that we ever had money for stuff like that. But she had some old handkerchiefs and lace. She was small like me, only five foot. Pretty, with long blonde hair and a happy smile.
She named me
after my great-grandmother, and I think she’d wanted me to be like her, a delicate little antique doll. But all I’d ever been was little. I was never delicate a day in my life.
In the black, I wondered if I’d die like her. Drowning on dry land.
* * *
metallic ticking was the first sound I heard.
Tick, tick, tick, tick
. It was a familiar noise, but I couldn’t place it right away.
My eyes opened slowly, and I saw an ancient metal ceiling fan wobbling above me as it turned. I lay in a comfortable bed, in a cool, white room, with a clean white sheet covering my body. To my left, a window was propped open by a metal lever, and a screen kept the bugs from coming in. I realized I was in one of the small cabins down below the barn and the guards’ quarters, and it seemed to be early morning. The air was still damp, but much cooler.
In a chair at the foot of the bed sat Gallatin. His hands were clasped over his flat stomach, and he was leaned back with his eyes closed. I studied his sleeping form. He wore brown canvass pants and a grey tank. His exposed arms were toned but not hugely muscular. I remembered the sudden feeling of lightness before everything went dark.
Did he lift that calf by himself? Was someone else there?
The scars I’d seen striping the underside of his forearms were hidden, but the one on the back of his hand was visible. My eyes flickered to his cheek, but as usual, his brown hair was swept over that scar. Where could he be from?
His sister was clearly Russian, but he looked more... Cuban. Minus the accent. Just then his eyelid twitched. I looked away and tried to move, but I couldn’t. Everything hurt, my hip worst of all.
For a moment, I lay still trying to summon any memories after the blackness took me. I was trapped under the calf, it was kicking and trying to stand on me, my mouth filled with liquid—
—the strange lightness, then nothing.
I tried to sit up but he stopped me.
“Take it easy.” Gallatin dropped to a knee at my bedside.
I turned my head to find his golden-brown eyes right next to me, and I jerked away fast. An expression like disappointment or hurt flashed across his face, but he smiled and backed up.
“I’m sorry,” he said, resuming his position at the foot of the bed. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”
My throat hurt so badly, it was like when I’d had my tonsils removed. But I forced the words. “What happened?”
“The calf fell on you, and I couldn’t get him off. He kept slipping out of my arms.”
I nodded. “Mine, too.”
Gallatin picked up a towel that had fallen to the floor and stretched forward to hand it to me without leaving his seat. I was conflicted, feeling grateful but wary, as I realized he’d probably cleaned my face and taken care of me. I gingerly slid forward and took the towel.
“Thanks,” I whispered.
“You can’t imagine how happy I am to see your eyes open, to hear you speak.”
I nodded and looked down. I was wearing only my underwear and a t-shirt that must’ve been his. The coveralls were gone, and I didn’t see them anywhere in the room.
He read my expression. “Oma was in the barn preparing for the second shift. She helped me change your clothes. They were covered with fluids and blood.”
“Where are they now?”
“She’s cleaning them, but I can get you something different to wear.”
He stood and went to his drawers, pulling out a pair of coveralls that were so long, they’d fit me like a clown suit.
“If you have some shorts, I could wear them to the dorm,” I said.
He dug around and pulled out a dark pair of boxers and passed them to me. As he walked to the door, I asked. “What about the calf?”
He stopped in the doorway and smiled. “You should see him. He’s fluffy and clean, and you were right. The mother ate the afterbirth. It was disgusting.”
“How long was I out?”
“A while, but Shubuta gave you medicine so you’d rest.” He held the door and looked down. “If you’d like, I’ll take you to see the calf before breakfast.”
“Let me get dressed.”
Using the mattress for leverage, I pushed my body into sitting position. Then I cried out in pain as I rotated my hips. Gallatin stepped back, and I saw his hand go into his pocket.
“We checked you out. I don’t think anything’s broken,” he said. “I had to turn you to get you breathing again.”
“My hip’s... really sore,” I gasped. “I wish I had some ibuprophen.”
“I thought you might say that.” He pulled his hand out, and two white pills lay on his palm. “And you need a day off to rest.”
Pain radiated through every part of my body so badly, I didn’t even hesitate to take the pills and the water he offered.
“I thought I was going to die,” I said.
“When that fluid went in your mouth and nose, I thought you might, too.”
“Did you lift the calf off me? All by yourself?”
He went back to the door and hesitated before speaking. “I should let you get dressed.”
“Newborn calves weigh about a hundred pounds.”
“I doubt he weighs that much.”
“It felt like he did to me.”
He started to leave, but again he paused. “Do you need help? I could get Oma.” I shook my head, and he nodded. “Let me know when you’re ready, and I’ll walk you to the barn.”
The shorts hung to my knees, but they were a nice change from our heavy canvass coveralls. I had to lean heavily on Gallatin’s arm as we walked, but he took it slow. I noticed he also shortened his strides to accommodate the difference in our heights. I appreciated his obvious care, but I was also puzzled by it.
When we reached the back stall, I rounded the corner and then stopped. A little brown and white calf stood suckling his huge mother. The last time I’d seen him, he was in distress trying to push through a hole at least ten times too small for him. Now he stood in front of me, perfect.
“I didn’t expect to feel so proud,” I whispered, leaning against the rail. Then I laughed at my silly damp eyes.
Gallatin smiled. “I felt the same way.”
“It’s silly. Isn’t it? Getting sentimental over a cow.”
“I guess. But it’s nice, too. We did this.”
“Well, I think she might have a different version of the story.”
He reached over and rubbed my shoulder as I looked around the stall and saw the remnants of my accident. In one spot the hay was spread away from the floor, and I noted a place where Gallatin must’ve done CPR.
“I do think he outweighs you,” he said.
“Then he’s at least a hundred pounds.”
I reached up and placed my hand on top of his still on my shoulder. The pain reliever was taking longer to kick in, and I appreciated the support. We continued to watch the little calf nestle against its mamma until the breakfast tone sounded, reminding me I was a prisoner. I stepped back against the wall and held the rails instead of Gallatin.
“I think if I move around, the stiffness will start to let up,” I said.
“I’ll get you another set of clothes.”
“Thanks.” I paused, not meeting his eyes. “And thank you for helping me. I can’t believe I swallowed that goo.”
“I think the technical term is
“And to think I always wanted to be a doctor.”
“An obstetrician?” he teased.
My eyes rose then, and I studied him for a moment. He was smiling and being kind, and I didn’t know how to respond to this, even if it was my goal. Now that he’d saved me, now that I’d been in his room and spent the night in his bed, it felt strange. Too familiar and wrong. In light of what had happened with Cleve, the rumored mass graves and electrified chips, I wasn’t sure if I was ready to be friends with him.
Internally, I shook myself. I
to be friends. I had to get the information I needed.
I swallowed my emotions and smiled. “I pretty much gave up on that dream a long time ago.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t have.”
I shrugged, and he stepped to me. Then he crooked his arm and pulled my hand through it.
“Let me take you back. You need to eat and then rest. I’ll take care of getting you a day off.”
I took a step, then leaned heavily on him again as my hip flashed with pain. He slowly escorted me through the empty barn, and when the rising sun hit my face, it was already hot. No breeze moved the damp air.
“It’s too bad we don’t have air conditioning,” I said. “But I guess in the shade, it’s tolerable.”
“I’ll get you more water, and the medicine will help you sleep.”
I nodded, and after many staggered steps, finally we were back at the entrance to the dorm. Everyone was gone to breakfast, and I stopped before entering, feeling like I should say something.
“I’m glad you’re up and moving around,” he said. “Who else could help me finish my training?”
“I’m not sure I’m such a great teacher. After all, I got flattened by a newborn.”
He laughed gently, and my eyes met his. It was an unexpected, pleasant sound, and his smile softened his features, making him seem less threatening.
He did resemble Cato. He had her same tall elegance, and this boy who saved my life was actually handsome despite his scars. In that instant, I felt my guard lower, but I quickly restored it. Getting soft toward him would only cause problems down the line, and my goal was to escape, to get out and find Jackson.
Anyway, Gallatin and I weren’t really friends. When all was said and done, we were on opposite sides of the line. We were enemies, and for now, I was his prisoner.
“Thank you,” I said and carefully pushed through the screen door, leaving him alone.
s I pulled on my coveralls, I noticed an ugly green bruise forming on my right hip. I was late for breakfast, but there was no way I was staying in bed all day. What would I do besides wait and think about how I wasn’t accomplishing anything?
Still, being hunched over a milk pail probably wasn’t the best course of action in my condition either. I finished dressing and hobbled to where the rest of my team was almost through eating. Several worried eyes flew to me when I entered, but nobody dared approach me. I nodded and made my way to the empty seat between Flora and Yolanda.
A plate was soon put in front of me along with an envelope. Gallatin had sent another pair of white pills with a note that said I didn’t have to report for chores. I slipped it in my pocket and slowly began my routine of cutting meat and sliding pieces to Flora, who kept nervously glancing at my face.
“They said you helped bring a calf.” Her voice trembled as she whispered.
I nodded, chewing slowly. My hip was hurting less because of the pills, but sitting was still uncomfortable.
“You were gone so long,” she almost cried. “I was so afraid. I was sure they were lying to us.”
Swallowing my bite, I shook my head. “No, the calf came too fast and landed on me. I got hurt.”
“Is that all that happened?” Her green eyes were wide.
I nodded as a guard passed along behind us. We ate in silence, and Flora looked all around my face with more animation than she’d shown in a long time.