Authors: Leigh Talbert Moore
Tags: #love, #romantic, #action, #adventure, #small town, #paranormal, #female protagonist, #suspense, #survival
Behind the Stars
By Leigh Talbert Moore
This is a work of fiction. Similarities to real people, places, or events are entirely coincidental.
BEHIND THE STARS
First edition. December 31, 2014.
Copyright © 2014 Leigh Talbert Moore.
Written by Leigh Talbert Moore.
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
For my readers and for JRM,
and for my Spanish Fort book club ladies, who fell in love with this story years ago.
id-May, and it was already hot. And wet. Sweat pasted the few strands of stringy blonde hair that had escaped my ponytail to my damp neck, and I tried not to stir up dust as I walked fast down the old dirt road.
Today was my last day working with Dr. Green, the only large-animal vet in Dabb Creek, and it wasn’t much different from my first. Except on that day it had rained. Stormed more like it, and Doc had said to meet him at Mrs. Blalock’s barn.
My boyfriend Jackson and his best friend D’Lo had to tag along, of course. They didn’t think I’d go through with it, and I think even Dr. Green was skeptical, which was why he’d said I’d have to palpate the widow’s best milking cow before he’d agree to make me his assistant.
I knew what that meant. Fancy word for sticking your arm up a cow’s backside to see if she was pregnant. They didn’t think I could do it because I was so little. Years of stretching and drinking milk had only got me up to five-foot tall, but I climbed up on that stool, set my jaw, and plunged right in.
Dr. Green stood close by me, holding up Elsie’s tail. His man-sized plastic glove went all the way over my shoulder to my neck, and it was slathered in lubricant. It kept me clean, but I was getting the full experience of hot, smelly cow butt.
“Make your hand like a wedge, Prentiss,” he said. “Now slowly reach all the way to your elbow.”
Thunder rumbled low outside, and the hiss of rain grew louder. I closed my eyes and followed his instructions, focusing on what I was trying to find rather than
I was trying to find it.
“Let the contractions pass,” he said, referencing the muscle spasms I felt around my forearm. “Now feel downward to locate the uterus, not forward. Careful... see if you can detect the embryo.”
I heard D’Lo snorting behind me, but I wouldn’t look at him. I wouldn’t look at anything. My throat was constricting like I might throw up, but there was
I was doing that.
“Feel it?” The vet asked.
I shook my head, eyes still closed, unable to speak. The cow seemed as tense as me, but whether it was from the growing storm or my arm sinking deeper into her hindquarters, I couldn’t tell.
“Keep feeling... gently,” Dr. Green urged. “Anybody can learn palpation. It’s the most accurate procedure for determining pregnancy in dairy cows. And the cheapest—”
“I got it!” My breath rushed out in a gush.
I did. I felt a definite lump spilling over the pubic bone. Elsie’s calf.
“Now. Make a mental note of the size,” he said. “She’s about 90 days along.”
“I feel it,” I repeated, my legs shaking as my muscles started to relax. “It’s a little lump about the size of my palm.”
“Good,” Dr. Green smiled. “Now ease your arm out slowly.”
I remembered Jackson’s smug look and D’Lo’s expletives of praise. Dr. Green sent them out while we discussed the miracle of life and my new schedule.
That was nine months ago, back when senior year was just beginning. Now graduation was right around the corner, and I’d learned enough about delivering colts and impregnating cows to handle anything that might come up on a farm. On our farm. The one Jackson’s daddy’d give us after we got married.
Jackson and I’d talked about it for a while, and working for the doc was part of our plan. Soon I’d escape my broken home and start a new life. A better life.
A cramp stabbing my ribs brought me back to the Here and Now. I was late, and last day or not, Dr. Green would fuss.
“My assistants must be punctual,” he’d say. “It’s difficult being the only vet in a farming community.”
I exhaled slowly as a bead of sweat tickled a path down the middle of my back, and I tried to keep the dirt out of my Keds.
Back when the 911 service came through, most of these roads got numbers or real names besides “Shortcut to the Creek” or “Road Where the Broke-down House Used to Be.” But there were still a few like this one, “Old School Road,” that you only knew what to do with if you grew up in our little town of less than a thousand people. It didn’t matter, though. Strangers never stopped in Dabb Creek.
That should’ve been my first warning.
If I hadn’t been so focused on being late, I might’ve paid more attention to the strange man standing on the shoulder looking lost. Bad manners or not, I didn’t have time to give directions or to explain how far it was back to town.
It wasn’t until I was up on him that I realized he was watching me, studying the pace of my feet. Then I saw the body on the ground.
I skipped like a rabbit to the other side of the road, a scream forming in my mouth, but another man sprung up behind me. A rough cloth clamped over my mouth, and in two breaths, everything went dark.
* * *
kept waking up.
I learned fast that was a problem because every time I opened my eyes and started to move, a voice with a strange, clipped accent said, “This one’s awake.”
Another rough cloth would go over my mouth and nose, and I’d be out again.
The first time I opened my eyes, I was in the back of a big, covered truck. My head bumped against the hard bed, so I lifted it away and looked around the dim space. Other lumps lay beside me on the floor, and seated against the sides were what seemed to be guards in green, coverall-style jumpsuits.
I tried to sit up, but my arms and legs felt heavy like lead weights. I managed to push myself higher, and through blurry eyes, I was pretty sure I saw my friend Flora Magee. Just as I leaned forward to check, I heard the voice.
“This one’s awake.”
Everything went black.
* * *
opened my eyes, and my first thought was
. I was in a closet-sized room with a cheap aluminum chair. A fluorescent light flickered above me. Harsh chemical smells met my nose, and I was lying in nothing but my underwear on a cot.
A woman quickly entered and my heartbeat ticked up. She wore the same coveralls, but she had a white mask over her nose and mouth and plastic gloves on her hands. She walked straight to my side without even looking at my face, as if she were following routine.
Before I could speak, she lifted a metal, gun-looking device with a glass cylinder on the side and pressed it against my upper arm. A trigger pull, and a pinch hit me like a bee sting.
“Ouch!” I cried, and her black eyes snapped to mine.
I jerked back at the sight of them—pitch-black with no pupils. Her glance moved behind me, and I saw her nod slightly. We weren’t alone.
Rough cloth over my face. Fade to black.
* * *
he third time I opened my eyes, I was in a bed. It was dark, and except for the loud
of the cicadas, everything was quiet. I took a deep breath of faint, bleached mildew, and I knew I should be panicking. I should be freaking out, but for some reason I wasn’t. I could think how I should feel, name the emotions in my brain, but they were missing. My body was artificially calm. My brain formed the word
Five metal bunk beds filled a room divided in half by a stiff wooden partition. I couldn’t make out who else was with me in the darkness, so I stared at the bunk above trying to piece together what had happened to me. The truck, the room... Me in places I didn’t recognize with people I didn’t know.
. Where was Flora? How long had I been here?
It seemed like they got me yesterday, but I wasn’t sure. I rolled onto my side, and a stingy pull itched on the skin of my right arm. I slid my hand over it and felt a Band-Aid stretched across a cotton ball. The gun. The bee sting. The lady with the black eyes. Despite whatever drugs coursed through my veins, my heart managed to beat faster.
A loud tone cut through the silence, followed by a metal
at the door. The stiff wooden partition slowly retracted, uniting our side with another room of five metal bunk beds. I sat up quickly when two guards stepped inside. The air grew tense, my breathing fast. The men were tall, with fair hair and pale eyes, but the main thing I noticed were the guns. Both held rifles.
A voice squawked through a metal intercom hanging above the door. My eyes jerked from our armed hosts to the speaker that was so ancient, I couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman addressing us.
“That is the signal for Team One. Any time that sound is heard, the following names will immediately report to their next assignment...”
As I listened, my eyes traveled around the room. With the partition open, I could see we’d been separated, male from female while we slept. Now we were all together. A few faces I recognized, but none were really close friends. Some were younger than me, and a few were older. I couldn’t see a pattern to the group. We were male, female, black, white.
What was this?
Panic kept trying to rise in my chest, but as it would grow stronger, I could feel it disseminate. My thoughts would flatten, and again I thought
“...Prentiss Puckett, Yolanda Roberts, ...”
I was on Team One, whatever that meant, with Yolanda Roberts. Hers was a name I knew well, but only because she’d never liked me. Worse. She’d always made a point to avoid me. I strained my eyes looking for any other friends. Maybe Flora was here?
It was hard to tell who was who with the grey metal beds blocking my sight. Many of the bodies were still hunched under blankets. A pair of grey coveralls lay at the foot of my bunk, and I stepped into them as the voice continued.
“Each morning, Team One will report to the dining hall first to eat and receive their work assignments for the day. Team Two will follow this tone...”
A slightly higher pitch rang out and the voice droned on. “Each morning, Team Two will begin work assignments first and enter the dining hall after Team One has left.”
I spied my brother Braxton at the far end of the room. Braxton was five years older than me, and I imagined running to him, telling him I was okay, asking him what was happening. But those men with the guns kept me in my place.
Braxton didn’t seem to see them. He was staring at the floor with a blank expression, like he was trying to find his way in the dark. Like he was lost.
Another spasm of fear squeezed my chest and was quickly controlled. The internal up and down was starting to make me nauseated. I’d never taken drugs, which made me extra sensitive to their side-effects.
“Today, you will remain together,” the voice finished.
The guards turned to the side as if to escort us, and on cue, we all formed a single line. As the second row fell into step, I spotted D’Lo. He was hard to miss at his height and skin color—he was the color of pure ebony and almost seven foot, but he was also acting like my brother, vacant, sleepwalking.
Bravery be damned, I wanted to cry. Then I wanted to cry more because I couldn’t cry. I wanted to go home. I wanted my daddy, which was stupid and sick. He couldn’t do anything. No, I wanted Jackson. Was he here? My eyes darted around the group. I had to find him. He’d know what to do.