Read on for the prologue of my forthcoming novel, Devils & Dust…
OUT ON 11.05.19.
Sad and fierce.
These are my two least favorite words…ever.
I’ve decided this with all the wilful finality of my six-year-old self as I trail behind my older sister, Tatiana, on our way to the park. They’ve been invading our home for a whole week now, ever since mama died. I keep rolling them around my head like I’m choosing out an outfit for my doll, and I still don’t know which one to try on first. I guess I’m both sad and fierce about everything that’s happened.
Today, I miss mama so much I can’t breathe. Those two words are stuck in my throat. They’re pushing my face into a bathtub of water, like I saw my father do to a man once, and now they’re chasing me out of our apartment block and onto the street like a couple of scary monsters. I see them in everything, no matter how tightly I shut my eyes.
The doorman looks sad and fierce as he watches us leave.
The sun looks sad and fierce in the sky.
I tip my head back for greater inspection and Tatiana tugs at my hand impatiently. She’s five years older than me, and with her shiny curtain of dark brown hair she looks so like mama it hurts my heart all over again.
“Come on Nina!”
“I don’t want to go,” I wail, dragging my feet but her grip only tightens.
“You heard what papa said, didn’t you?”
I heard the shouting but I didn’t understand it. I just know that if we don’t obey him his fists and his pain will follow us out of our apartment block too.
Tatiana drops my hand as soon as we reach the park. I watch her stumble over to the swings, her feet catching on imaginary tufts of grass. She slumps down into the middle one but she doesn’t move. She just stares at her knees, her long bangs flopping all around her face.
There’s a group of older boys on the climbing frame playing pirates.
“You stuck for choice there, sweetheart?” drawls a deep voice from behind me. “I’d go for the swings if I were you… That girl looks like she needs the company.”
I turn, and take a step back in shock. There’s an easy grin on his face but there’s nothing funny about the teenage boy’s appearance. He’s sat slumped over a park bench, his face all bruised like a piece of moldy fruit. One hand is tucked between a white T-shirt and a torn black jacket, and there’s a stain of red beneath his fingertips. I glance at it and my heart starts jumping about in my chest like one of those Mexican bean things Tatiana keeps on her nightstand.
He frowns slightly at my reaction. “Hey, I’m not going to hurt you, kid. Shit, I can’t even sit-up straight.” He shifts position and the movement knocks the last of the laughter right out of his voice. “Godammit that hurts like a mutha…”
“Sad and fierce,” I mutter at him. His eyes are the cloudy gray-brown color of the earth in summertime. His hair is as black as my nightmares, but for some reason he doesn’t scare me.
“What’s that you said?” He winces again and tries to straighten up.
“Sad and fierce,” I repeat, because this man-boy is everything about those words and more. I can tell he’s bad like my papa and his friends, but there’s something so sad about him too.
“Are those two words from your fucking spelling bee this week, princess?”
I watch as he pulls out a crumpled pack of cigarettes with his spare hand and slots one into his mouth. His words don’t shock me. Not even close. I’ve heard a hundred times worse in my short life.
“My mama’s gone,” I whisper, “and everything is sad and fierce now.”
He nods, accepting this, like this kind of loss is a part of his family too. “That’s a tough break, kid.” He lights up his cigarette and inhales deeply. “Never knew my folks. Got dragged up in Brooklyn by a bunch of fucking paedos.”
His red lips curve into a smile. “Well, it’s not Manhattan darlin’,” he says, waving his arm at all the smart buildings that are glaring down at us like my grandmother when I won’t eat her Shchi. “I can tell you that much.”
“Why is your face all banged up?” I ask him curiously.
There’s a pause as he blows out a fresh cloud of smoke. “That story’s not for sharing. Didn’t your mama ever warn you ’bout talking to strangers?”
I say nothing. A sudden rush of tears is making my vision go blurry again.
“Ah, shit…” He grimaces, more out of frustration with himself than from the pain. “Here, come closer a moment. I ain’t gonna bite ya.”
I shuffle forward a few steps as he tosses away his half-smoked cigarette and bends down to run his fingers through the dirt by our feet.
“Good girl. Now, hold out your hand.”
I do as he says. I feel a light sprinkling of dust across my palm before he’s folding it into a fist. His touch is warm and gentle; his skin is stained pink. Again, I should feel frightened, but I don’t. He’s like the role-play we did at kindergarten once. He’s a good man pretending to be bad.
“It doesn’t matter which side of the bridge we live on,” he mutters, staring down at my fist. “We all have this in common.”
“What, dirt?” I say, my nose wrinkling in confusion.
His face creases up again and I see a trickle of light behind his weird-looking eyes. “You might have a point there, sweetheart. Sounds like we’ve both had to eat our fair share of that recently.”
I turn my fist over and study my plump knuckles. “Can I throw it away now?”
“Not until I’m done talking.” He slumps backward against the bench again. The stain on his T-shirt is getting worse. His skin is white beneath his tan.
“We come from the ground, remember that, and we go back to the ground when we’re done… It’s what we do in-between that counts.” He pauses to light another cigarette, and as he raises it to his mouth I can see that his hand is shaking. “I’m not going to be sat on this bench with a hole in my stomach forever. Neither will you always look so lost in that expensive dress next to your ivory fucking tower, with fucked-up grown-up words like ‘sad’ and ‘fierce’ chasing you around all over town.” He gestures to the scary buildings again. “Make it count, no matter what they throw at you, kid. Can you do that for me?”
I think about his words. I think about mama. Did she make it count?
I know I won’t remember this moment – his face will fade into the dark, along with her memory – but for some reason I want to so badly. I can almost taste it… It’s silky-smooth on my tongue like chocolate ice cream.
“Okay, I guess.”
“You guess?” He shakes his head and tuts at me. “Guesses are for assholes still fumbling around for their dicks in the dark. I want your promises, or nothing.”
Now it’s my turn to straighten up. “Okay then, I will… But you have to do it too.”
There’s a challenge hiding somewhere in my voice and it takes us both by surprise.
“Done.” His next smile is a slow and lazy thing. It looks like my cat, Zoya, stretching out in a patch of sunlight. “Don’t you worry about that, princess… There’s a whole world beneath the dirt of this city, and I’m planning to rule over every last, fucking square inch of it.”
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