The first thing Karen did when the Leningrad trader kissed her was hold her breath. The second thing she did was wonder where he got the fish. She hadn't eaten anything but stale bread since early November—no one in this starving city had—and that was more than a month ago. But somehow, the Leningrad trader's breath tasted like anchovies. He must have bartered for them, just as Karen had agreed to trade him this kiss.
The trader tried to separate her lips with his tongue, but that wasn't part of the deal, so she kept her mouth locked tight. She could feel him trying to grope her, but he couldn't unbutton her coat with his gloves on, and it was far too cold to take them off. Eventually he let go of her and removed his lips from hers. Karen was glad of that because she couldn't hold her breath much longer.
The Leningrad trader begrudgingly opened his duffel bag and handed over a shovel. Karen had brokered a four-way trade. She'd given her gold locket to Kaleena, who'd given a bale of chicken wire to Inna, who'd given a cup of flour to the Leningrad trader, who'd agreed to give Karen the shovel. It had taken Karen more than a month to organize the deal, to figure out who wanted what and how to get it for them. The Leningrad trader turned out to be the most difficult link in that chain because he wanted more than a cup of flour. He also wanted a kiss.
Karen felt vaguely guilty, as if she were cheating him somehow. You couldn't eat a kiss. A kiss couldn't ease your hunger or start a fire. And yet this savvy and successful trader twenty years her senior had wanted little more. Karen felt bad for him but was relieved that he stayed true to his word.
She had big plans for that shovel. In the spring she intended to plant a garden. She had the seeds her aunt had sent with her across the ocean—tomato, cucumber, and squash. She'd never bothered to plant the seeds or even open the little envelopes they were packed in. She didn't like gardening, not like her aunt did, so she'd used the seed packets as bookmarks and had completely forgotten about them.
She caught her breath when she found them, tucked away in a book that was destined for the fire. She didn't dare tell her father about them. He would have bartered them away for something useless, like a pencil. She hid them in her pockets and began scheming a way to plant them. Tomatoes could be traded for potatoes or even bread. Cucumbers could be pickled if she could find the salt. And squash could be roasted or boiled into a soup. But first she had to survive until the thaw. Right now the ground was frozen solid.
Karen pressed the shovel to her chest and turned to leave, but she hesitated. The Leningrad trader looked so depressed, staring vacantly at the drawstring of his duffel bag. He twirled it around his finger, over and over, just as unwilling to remove his gloves and tie a proper knot as he had been to unbutton Karen's coat.
She leaned close to him and whispered, "You're a good man," and kissed him on the cheek. He smiled at that, which made Karen smile, too. "I'll save you a cucumber," she promised before turning to trudge through the snow back to her apartment. She glanced over her shoulder and was surprised to see the man still watching her, absentmindedly rubbing his cheek where she'd kissed him.
Karen focused on her journey. The route home wasn't long, only about twenty minutes on foot. She'd made that same walk hundreds of times before. But everything required concentration now. It wasn't just the frigid temperature; it was because she was hungry. Her hunger made her weak, and sometimes her mind played tricks on her. Just last week she'd become unfocused and gotten lost. That twenty-minute walk turned into a desperate hour-and-a-half hike as she tried to find her way back. She could have died. Others had. Corpses lay frozen in the street where men or women had fallen, too cold and fatigued to keep walking. That could have happened to her, and if she didn't focus, it could happen again.
She reached her first landmark—the State bakery where she collected her ration of bread—and turned right. She stopped three blocks later, as she always did, to stare at her second landmark—the old woman's dead body.
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The Undesirables (Sample Chapter)Historical Fiction
(Chapter 1 only) In the winter of 1941-1942, Leningrad is under siege, and Karen Hamilton, a seventeen-year-old American musician, finds herself trapped and struggling to survive. Throughout the city, people are dying of starvation and frostbite, an...