Excerpts for Gathering Dark
NORMALLY, KEIRA DIDN'T NOTICE the shoppers that trickled through the department store. She just sat, head down, playing the obnoxious, white-lacquered baby grand. But this time was different. The oily-smooth voice cracked her focus like an egg smashing against a windowpane.
"Keeeeira. Still doing the piano thing, huh?"
Keira's fingers hesitated above the keys, breaking the rhythm of the unobtrusive music that Mr. Seever, the store manager, insisted she play. Live music was never going to make the mall in Sherwin, Maine, a classy place, but Keira didn't care. She was making money with her music. Good money. Even if the music was horrible, it was still a chance to flex her fingers. To work on her concentration.
Concert pianists have to be able to focus, no matter what else is happening. Come on, Keira. Pay attention.
Two guys, both sporting gelled hair and over-applied body spray, sidled up next to the piano. They weren't just a couple of popular guys--they were practically famous in Sherwin. People fawned over Jeremy Reynolds and his friends, teachers and girlfriends and high school peons alike. Except Keira. She didn't care about their parties or their clothes. They used to treat her like a freak, until one guy in Jeremy's inner circle, Tommy Hutchinson, started dating Keira's best friend, Susan Kim.
Jeremy's endless attempts to flirt with her were worse than his snide comments. She ended up fending him off whenever he and Tommy came to the store to visit Susan.
Keira had to shut him down every single time she saw him. It was exhausting. And distracting.
"You're way too hot to play such boring music." Jeremy leaned an elbow on the piano. "You should play something that has more feeling."
Lamest come-on of the week. She watched her right hand stretch, her pinkie reaching for the F-sharp key. Something tickled Keira's nose, breaking through the cloud of Jeremy's cologne.
Startled, she glanced up. Sure enough, a lit cigarette dangled from Jeremy's fingers. The smoke curled away from it like a gray ribbon.
"There's a party Friday night. You should come with me. I'll even take you to dinner or something first."
Keira didn't date.
Especially not a smoker.
Extra-especially not a smoker who was also a jerk.
Sometimes when Keira looked at him, she still saw a seventh-grader, standing as far from her as he could at the bus stop. She'd watched him claw his way to the top rung of Sherwin High, in spite of the fact that he came from the wrong side of town.
Keira's side of town.
Jeremy'd lived one street behind and three doors south of Keira's house his whole life. He wasn't rich, but now he was powerful. He knew the right people. Screw silver spoons--the rest of Jeremy's friends had been born with sets of Mustang keys in their mouths.
Keira glanced around for Tommy, who had headed over to the nearby perfume counter to say hi to Susan. He caught her watching him and held her gaze, his face breaking into an encouraging smile when he saw Jeremy leaning in close.
Keira frowned back at Tommy, but Tommy's gaze had drifted over to Jeremy.
She watched Jeremy put the cigarette to his lips and take a deliberate drag. Jeremy exhaled a halo of smoke so foul and thick that Keira choked on it, coughing hard enough that she instinctively jerked her fingers off the keyboard and covered her mouth.
With the smell of cigarettes permeating the cosmetics section and the sudden pause in the music, Keira knew Mr. Seever was bound to appear any second. Her fear of losing her job swelled, eclipsing her fear of pissing everyone off.
"You can't smoke in here! You'll get me fired!" she growled. She was already on thin ice after a fur-jacketed old woman demanded Keira play some Johnny Mercer, then complained to the manager when Keira had said she didn't know any of his songs. Don't make me regret hiring you, Mr. Seever'd warned.
Behind the perfume counter, she could see Susan watching with a worried frown. Susan was the one who'd gotten her the job in the first place. It was supposed to be fun, working right next to each other.
Because this is such a super good time we're having. Right.
Jeremy clutched his cigarette protectively. "Don't be like that. We're just playing around, right?" He fake pouted. It was distinctly un-sexy.
"Jeremy!" Susan said, exasperated. She turned to Tommy. "Can you . . . please?"
Tommy rubbed a hand across his head, messing up his hair. He looked so torn that Keira could practically hear him ripping at the seams. "Come on, Keira," he wheedled. "Lighten up, okay? There's no one around, or anything."
Susan crossed her arms and made an irritated noise. Tommy's cheeks went blotchy.
"Please," Keira said to Jeremy, trying not to beg. "I'll get in trouble."
Tommy stepped closer. "Maybe we should get out of here, Jer. I need to get some food, anyway."
"I think we should stay. It's not like I'm gonna set the scarves on fire or anything."
The guys leaned in on either side of Keira. She felt trapped.
"Seriously, man, I gotta get something to eat or I'm gonna starve." Tommy reached over Keira and pushed Jeremy's shoulder playfully.
"Watch the jacket, man!" Jeremy grabbed Tommy's wrist, looking genuinely angry.
Keira stood up, completely abandoning the piano. All she wanted was to get away from the two guys. Before she could get around them, Tommy stepped to the side to slip out of Jeremy's grip and tripped over the legs of the piano bench. His fall pulled Jeremy into Keira, knocking her against the piano. The glowing cherry of his cigarette pressed against the arm of her shirt.
By the time he'd righted himself and pulled the cigarette away, it had burned through her cotton shirt. With her heart tapping out a panicked staccato, Keira looked at the skin beneath it. There was a small, circular indentation in her arm, where the smoldering tobacco had pressed against her skin, but there was no burn. No blister. Nothing.
How can that be?
The guys backed away from the piano.
"You pushed me into her!"
"What? You were the one holding on to me!"
"You grabbed me first! And anyway, she's not hurt!" Jeremy looked at Keira. "You're not hurt, right? I mean, you're not crying or anything."
"I'm fine. Could you leave now?" The words were sharp as pins, and Jeremy's eyes narrowed.
"Keira! Are you okay?" Susan shouldered her way between the two guys. "Just get out of here!" She spat the words at Jeremy as she brushed past.
"Sorry, Keira. I'll make it up to you, okay?" Jeremy glanced over his shoulder apologetically as he and Tommy scrambled for the exit.
"Did he burn you?" Susan tugged at Keira's arm, her dark eyes widening when she saw the ruined sleeve. "Oh, my God."
"No, it's okay. It just got . . . " She was going to say, It just got my shirt, but that wasn't true. That cigarette had ground against her like an overeager sophomore. Only, it hadn't burned her. Thinking about it made her hands shake. "I'm fine, I guess."
"Jesus. You are so lucky. I wish Tommy would quit hanging out with Jeremy. He's such an--" Susan's gaze snapped to the side.
Keira heard the squeak of leather shoes against the tile floor. With his comb-over flapping like an errant wing, Mr. Seever scurried up to them.
"What happened? Do you know those boys who just ran out of my store?" he demanded.
Keira crossed her arms to hide the hole in her shirt, then leaned against the piano for support. The white lacquer might be ugly, but it still made her feel better to be touching it.
"No. I mean . . . yes, we go to school together, but--"
Mr. Seever interrupted her. "I told you when you were hired that it would be unacceptable for your friends to come and ‘hang out' with you while you were working."
"They're not my friends!" Keira protested. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Susan shifting nervously. She looked like she couldn't decide if she was supposed to say something or shut up.
Keira shook her head at Susan. There was no reason for her to get in trouble too.
Apparently, Susan disagreed.
"They're my friends, Mr. Seever."
Mr. Seever turned and arched an eyebrow at Susan. "There's no need to try to cover for Keira, Miss Kim. I saw those boys by the piano. I heard the music stop."
He pursed his lips. "And all this after we had that unfortunate incident with the customer's request last week. Having you here is taking up far too much of my attention. Clearly, I should have hired a professional musician for this job."
Keira's insides felt too light beneath her skin. She lifted her chin. "Are you firing me?"
Mr. Seever sighed. "I'm sorry, but it's just proving too disruptive to the shoppers."
"But it wasn't her fault!" Susan insisted.
"Ms. Kim. I appreciate your loyalty to your friend here, but I think you'll find that--in this situation--it is misplaced. I would hate to have to fire both of you."
Keira swallowed her retort--that he had a lot of nerve talking about loyalty after he'd just fired someone who hadn't done anything wrong. But it wouldn't do her any good to say it, and she was not going to get Susan fired. Keira bit the inside of her cheek and waited silently until he was finished.
"Your check for this week is in the office." Mr. Seever cleared his throat. "It'll be your last one." He turned to Susan. "Don't you have displays to dust?"
Susan started to say something, then snapped her mouth shut.
"I'll call you later," Keira said to Susan, who scrambled back behind the perfume counter. When she looked back, Mr. Seever had already disappeared into the racks of belts and purses.
"Sorry, Keira," Susan whispered.
Keira shrugged. "No, I'm sorry. You're the one who's stuck working for the asshole. And hey, there are other jobs, right?" She forced herself to smile. "In the meantime, I'll have more time to practice. That's always a good thing."
Susan gave her a knowing look. As in--she knew how badly Keira needed the money.
Keira's hands trembled as she waved good-bye and headed for the office. She pulled on her jacket and stuffed the check in her bag, with the twenty-three dollars in cash that represented her current life-savings.
With a last glance around the office, Keira headed for the parking lot, praying that her car would start.